Given the optimism that runs through Steve Sarkisian as the Nile runs through Egypt, the concession Saturday after his Washington Huskies were trampled by Nebraska was substantial.
Answering a question after the 56-21 thrashing, the Huskies head coach said, “If it’s a setback, then it’s a setback.”
Sarkisian is the kind of guy who can find his golf drive hard against a tree trunk, take out a saw and make par. So when he admits his guys have gone backward, it’s a blow.
It’s not that anyone really expected the Huskies to beat Nebraska, the nation’s eighth-ranked team rippling with splendid athletes on both sides of the line, as well as traveling band of red-clad groupies who may have numbered 25,000 at Husky Stadium.
But the purple players and coaches didn’t expect to roll back to the Willingham era.
Least of all Jake Locker.
To find a big game played so poorly by a local star, longtime Seattle sports fans probably would have to go back to 1978 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, when the Sonics’ Dennis Johnson missed all 14 field goal attempts.
Locker had himself the football-passing equivalent of an oh-fer.
Twenty pass attempts, four completions, two interceptions, 71 yards, one sack.
Yes, he did make a 45-yard touchdown connection with Jermaine Kearse, and he ran for another score. In fact, he was the team’s leading rusher with 59 yards.
But the Cornhuskers didn’t much care what Locker did with his legs, because they knew he would remember the consequences every time they tackled him. And they figured his passing could be corralled.
They saw in film study a slightly above average college passer, a fifth-year senior with big-play capacity who often threw in haste, didn’t check down well to other receivers and still hadn’t settled comfortably on his run-pass decisions.
So the Cornhuskers defense basically said, “Go ahead, Jake. Make our day.”
On Washington’s fourth play from scrimmage and first pass attempt, Nebraska rushed four, didn’t get any pressure, yet induced Locker to throw into double coverage for an easy interception at midfield.
Two plays after the pick, Nebraska was up 7-0 and never looked back.
“I should have seen the underneath guy (nickel back and interceptor Eric Hagg) and got off it to a secondary read,” Locker said afterward in his usual monotone of defeat. “They have a scheme that’s well-coached and well-executed. We just couldn’t get the passing game going.”
Locker has a point — Nebraska starts five backs, often goes to six or seven and may have the best pass defense in the country.
“We’re real powerful guys, especially the back seven,” said senior starting safety DeJon Gomes, finding no need to indulge bashfulness. “We work together so well, and I think we’re really jelling. We knew we had this test on the road against what they say is a Heisman candidate or a No. 1 overall pick. So we knew we had to be aggressive and take our shots.”
Locker was destined to have a tough afternoon. But he will have nothing but tough afternoons unless he finally finds a rhythm as a passer. He’s just not that good yet at reading and reacting to defenses that have gone to school on him, which started with the opener at BYU.
No one knows it more than Sarkisian, who chose to keep Locker in the game long after it was decided in a vain effort to let him find himself.
“I thought maybe Jake was pressing a little bit today,” Sarkisian said. “Like, ‘I finally got it; I need it now; I need to get this one.’ Unfortunately, we didn’t.”
The season’s second game, a victory over mediocre Syracuse, was a false positive. Washington runs a risk of not being as good as a year ago because good defenses have evidence they can harass Locker into just enough mistakes to balance his tremendous physical talent.
“I didn’t hook up with anybody today,” said Locker, managing a rueful grin. “We need to have patience with our (route) progressions, and not try to force a ball where you have to make a good throw and a good catch.”
That’s a pretty fair summary. Until Locker can move the offense with ordinary passes and ordinary catches, the season will be a struggle. That doesn’t mean that Locker was entirely responsible for the magnitude of the defeat — Locker is not out there making tackles; then again, neither is the Huskies defense — but the coaching decision was made upon his return for a final year to build the offense around him, and the offense would have to carry a still-young defense.
So if the fundamental premise of the season is faulty, then Sarkisian may discover the term “setback” is a much larger part of his vocabulary than he imagined.
Fortunately for the Huskies, they have a bye week in which to get under Locker’s hood to see if belts can be tightened and spark plugs replaced.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, the next game is in L.A. against USC. The Trojans have been watching Locker get contained, and they have been remembering last season’s 16-13 defeat at Husky Stadium.
Whatever Locker’s approach to the next game, he can take some solace that his worst one is behind him.