Jermaine Kearse (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
UW coach Steve Sarkisian is trying to downplay the potential rewards of beating Nebraska Saturday. "I'm not concerned about the exposure part of it," he said. "That comes with wins and wins over time and consistency over time. My concern is, I just want to see us maximize an opportunity."
Still, there's no doubting that the visit by Nebraska serves as something of a measuring stick of the progress of the UW program in Sarkisian's second season.
After a five-game improvement last year to 5-7, the Huskies are generally projected to make a bowl game this year. But an opening loss to BYU caused some to wonder if the Huskies are really ready for that step. An easy 41-20 win over Syracuse (though in a game that was 13-10 at halftime) calmed some nerves in Seattle.
But a win over Nebraska would undoubtedly go a long way toward putting the Huskies back on the college football national landscape.
To do it, however, the Huskies will have to play better than they have in either of the first two games.
The Cornhuskers come in ranked No. 7 in the country featuring a powerful rushing attack, and a defense that has allowed more than 17 points in a game only twice since 2008.
UW got its offense on track against Syracuse, especially its perimeter passing game, as Jake Locker threw four touchdown passes, three to Jermaine Kearse -- all on plays where he took short passes and then burst into the end zone.
But UW likely won't have the same type of speed and athletic advantage this week against a Nebraska secondary considered among the best in the country.
That will put more of an onus on UW to get its running game going to try to open up the pass, and on Sarkisian to find some creative ways to get Locker and tailback Chris Polk going on the ground.
Noting the way Nebraska often puts as many as seven defensive backs on the field, Sarkisian said that: "You'd like to think you have better odds of running the football, but they hold up pretty well. The minus is, they've got defensive backs not only covering your wide receivers but covering your tight ends and covering your running backs out of the backfield. So they're able to stay close to guys. There's not a lot of error, not a lot of room to throw balls. So there's a real onus on the quarterback to know what coverage it is and anticipate throws and be accurate."
Defensively, UW will be challenged by Nebraska's varied offense, which includes liberal doses of the read-zone option, similar to that run by Oregon, which has so bedeviled the Huskies in recent seasons.
--UW has now played 14 true freshmen, two more than in any other season in school history (12 in 2008). Barring injury, however, UW will not play any more this season.
--UW has now won five of its last six home games and has outscored foes 113-31 in its last three home games.
--UW QB Jake Locker moved into third on the school's all-time career passing list Saturday and now has 5,929 yards, trailing only Cody Pickett (10,220) and Brock Huard (6,391).
SERIES HISTORY: The series is tied 3-3-1 (last meeting, 1998, Nebraska 55-7).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Huskies turned Jake Locker into almost solely a pocket passer last week against Syracuse, deciding that UW had some big edges on the perimeter and wanting to get the ball to receivers out on the edge and let them make plays. Completing a lot of high-percentage throws, Locker was 22-33 for 289 yards and four TDs. But a similar performance this week will be much tougher against a stout Nebraska secondary. And that means UW will have to get better protection from its line to give Locker more time and allow the receivers more time to get open. The line will also have to get more push to allow for the Huskies to get some of its running game going. TB Chris Polk has 209 yards on 36 carries, but more than half of those yards have come on four runs, including a 52-yarder against Syracuse.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: UW's defense has not allowed more than 23 points in any of its last four games, the first time that has happened since 1996, indicative of both improved play and a bend-but-don't-break philosophy that has worked well against mostly younger or struggling quarterbacks. UW again gets a young QB this week in Nebraska redshirt frosh Taylor Martinez. But he's also one of the best runners in the nation, so getting pressure on him won't be easy. UW will have to contain him and not let him get on the edge, and also do a good job of identifying the ball when Nebraska runs its various option plays. Key players there will be LBs Mason Foster and Cort Dennison, who essentially man the middle of the defense behind the front line.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've continually talked about that as we go on and on and continue to move forward as a program: Not to worry about the end results of a season. Don't worry about a bowl game. Don't worry about exposure. Don't worry about awards. Worry about the task at hand and what's in front of us. And this week it happens to be Nebraska." -- UW coach Steve Sarkisian.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Nebraska at Washington, Sept. 18 -- After getting on the winning track against Syracuse, Huskies have a chance to put their name on national map against the Cornhuskers.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
1) Make Nebraska earn everything. UW's biggest issues through its first two games has been giving up TDs either on short fields due to special teams mistakes, or big plays. Since Nebraska's defense isn't likely to give UW a lot of cheap points, the Huskies can't afford to give any to the Cornhuskers.
2) Identify the ball. While Nebraska has a lot of power in its offense, there's also a lot of deception with elements of the spread option zone-read offense. UW has struggled in recent years against that offense, particularly in simply knowing where the ball is. The linebackers and safeties will have to know where the ball is at all times against the Cornhuskers.
3) Win some man-to-man coverage battles. UW WR Jermaine Kearse was the Pac-10 Player of the Week last week after catching nine passes and three TDs against Syracuse. He and Devin Aguilar have firmly established themselves as among the best WR duos in the Pac-10. But this will be their stiffest test yet. Nebraska plays its share of man defense, and Kearse and Aguilar have to get open, and do so quickly before the Nebraska pressure gets to Locker.
4) Make something happen in special teams. UW has been dominated in the return games through the first two games, giving up a few long returns (especially on kickoffs) while getting nothing of its own.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Jake Locker -- This is the kind of game that Locker returned to UW to play. And while he has built a national name for himself and seems sure to have along pro career, his Husky legacy is still uncertain. A win in this game could go a long way toward defining it.
WR Jermaine Kearse --The junior has emerged as one of the best playmakers in the Pac-10 through the first two weeks of the season, ranking third in the nation in receiving at 143.5 receiving yards per game. But he'll get a stiff test this week going against Nebraska's Prince Amukamara, regarded by some as maybe the best cornerback in the nation.
MLB Cort Dennison -- Nebraska's various versions of option offense put a premium on locating the ball. Dennison isn't known for being the biggest and fastest LB in the Pac-10, but UW coaches have installed him as the starting MLB for his smarts. This is a game where those football smarts will be needed.
--QB Jake Locker suffered a bruised left hand late in the Syracuse game but said he is fine.
--RB Johri Fogerson, a backup to Chris Polk and a good receiver out of the backfield, missed the Syracuse game with a hip flexor and his status is uncertain for this week. That makes true frosh Jesse Callier essentially the sole backup to Polk.
--WR James Johnson played in mop-up time last week after sitting out against BYU with a sprained ankle suffered midway through the game. UW coaches hope he can return and give the team a reliable third option behind Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.
--DT Cameron Elisara was bothered by a sore quad during the Syracuse game but should be back.