SAN DIEGO — Rematch, revenge, reward. Those are all cutesy storylines that surround Washington’s return to a bowl game for the first time in eight years.
Throw out the rematch issue. It’s three months later and both teams have changed significantly.
Throw out the reward issue. When Washington finds itself undersized and needing to play near perfect for a win, the trip to SeaWorld will be on the mind of no one.
Most of all, throw out revenge. Let Steve Sarkisian boil down that aspect of Thursday night’s Holiday Bowl game between Washington and 17th-ranked Nebraska (7 p.m., ESPN).
“The revenge factor, that all sounds good in meetings the night before the game,” Sarkisian said. “But at the end of the day, if you can’t stop inside zone, you can’t stop power, revenge, that doesn’t matter.”
That, more than black uniforms, how well each team travels, if Nebraska is bored with the opponent and being in the same bowl for the second consecutive year, is most relevant.
The Huskers are bigger, faster, stronger. Those three topics so prevalent in all sport, are the simplistic advantages for Nebraska here.
But, Washington has evolved from three months ago, even from two years ago when Sarkisian took over. The slow maturation process and total overhaul of the formerly winless program appears to be taking hold. Though the opponents for the end-season winning streak did not cause any knocking knees, Washington still found the resolve to win all three games to square its record at 6-6. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini looks at the Washington program and sees process he dealt with at Nebraska.
When Pelini took over in 2008, the Huskers were coming off a 5-7 season. That’s their equivalent of 0-12. Nebraska went 9-4 the following season. Even the comparison of rebounding from dire times shows the difference in current status of the two programs. In that sense, the result of the bowl game could be viewed as a status update for the Washington program. Not so says Sarkisian.
“I think every game takes on its own life,” Sarkisian said. “I don’t know that this is a gauge of where we’ve gotten this much better or we haven’t. I just like to think we’ll play better than we did the first time against them. I thought that was one of our worst.”
It was the worst for Washington quarterback Jake Locker. Sarkisian said he expects a “passionate” game from Locker on Thursday. More important, he said the last time Locker was this healthy was October.
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is improving, as well. Pelini said Martinez won’t be 100 percent, but that he is feeling good and is confident. A large chunk of the game will be determined by Martinez’s mental health as much as physical. He lost explosiveness late in the year turning Nebraska into a one-dimensional offense, though high functioning in that dimension. He has also taken his lumps from Huskers fans. It’s been a large load for the redshirt freshman.
Despite the hubbub and hope, this game boils down to the most rudimentary level: what will happen at the line of scrimmage. Will Jake Locker have time and space? Will Washington provide more than meager defensive resistance and tackle better? Will the possibility of Nebraska disinterest provide opportunity for Washington?
Washington claims it will fix its mistakes from the first game. That likely will not be enough. They’ll need help, and Nebraska doesn’t seem to be in the giving mood this holiday season.