Jake Locker (K. Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
The Washington Huskies get a much-needed weekend off to lick their wounds and contemplate a sluggish 1-2 start to the 2010 season. What they say they won't do, however, is change their goals -- namely, to be competitive in the Pac-10 race and make it to a bowl game.
"There's no doubt," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said, when asked if the preseason goals remain intact. "There's no doubt. We just have to find a way to play to our potential. And that will be the goal the next two weeks. So when we go take the field at the (Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum in two weeks that we play to our potential. If that's good enough to win, so be it. If not, at least we know we played the way we are capable of playing."
Sarkisian doesn't feel as if UW has done that yet during a start to the season that has dimmed a lot of the preseason enthusiasm about the team in Seattle.
UW hasn't had a winning season or been to a bowl game since 2002. But Sarkisian was adamant throughout fall camp that those streaks would end this year, saying late in August, "I love where we're at."
The Huskies looked sloppy in a season-opening loss at BYU, however, that also revealed that the lines on both sides of the ball still had a ways to go. Then, after a solid, if not necessarily spectacular, win over Syracuse in week two, UW was manhandled by Nebraska in its third game, 56-21.
Not only did UW look bad but so did quarterback Jake Locker, whose Heisman Trophy candidacy was likely squashed for good when he went 4-for-20 for 71 yards with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown.
Sarkisian said the team may try to do some more live tackling during the bye week to improve in an area that was exposed against Nebraska. He also said the team will continue to try to get some young players more work to see if they deserve more time.
But mostly, UW will have to refine its schemes with the players it has in the starting lineup while also allowing some veterans to get healthy.
"There are going to be some guys that are going to need a couple days (rest)," Sarkisian said. "We're a little beat up right now. Those were three physical football games, from BYU to Syracuse to Nebraska. Those games can take their tolls, so the bye is coming at a great time for us -- to get healthy but also to push our young kids and get them even more game-ready than they maybe are."
--UW announced last week that it will host Eastern Washington to open the 2014 season. It's the latest move in an attempt to soften the team's non-conference schedules after years of usually playing three major BCS-type teams. UW will also host EWU next year and Portland State in 2012, the first lower-division teams UW has ever played.
--Despite an off game against Nebraska, Jermaine Kearse continues to lead the Pac-10 in receiving at 112.5 yards per game.
--LB Mason Foster leads the Pac-10 in tackles at 12.7 per game.
SEASON SUMMARY: The Huskies ended the non-conference slate of their schedule 1-2, losing at BYU before returning home to beat Syracuse and then getting crushed by Nebraska. Most around the program had realistically hoped for a 2-1 start, but the loss against a Cougars team that has since been easily defeated by Air Force and Florida State looms large as a game that got away.
LOOKING AHEAD: UW has to get better play up front on offense to get that side of the ball completely on track. Jake Locker had little time to throw Saturday, which helped lead to a disastrous outing against Nebraska. And while the running game has had its moments, UW hasn't been able to consistently move the ball on the ground. UW's offense is largely based on using the run to set up play-action, so the line has to get better.
Locker also has to start playing like the Heisman candidate he was before the season began -- but isn't really any longer. The two losses were hardly his fault alone. But especially against BYU he could have made some plays to take over the game late and he didn't. More opportunities will present themselves in future games and he has to take advantage.
UW also has to get better play from its front four on defense, which remains the main weakness on that side of the ball. A few young players may get more time there, especially at end, as UW tries to find a consistent pass rush.
And the special teams just have to get better. The coverage and return units have been below par so far, costing UW valuable field position in all three games, though the kickers themselves have been fine overall.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a lot of season left. We've played three football games to this point. The season is not lost; there's a lot of things for this football team to look forward to. We just need to keep working hard, practicing hard, preparing really well and going out and giving good effort on Saturdays." -- Washington quarterback Jake Locker.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: UW's offense is middle of the pack in the Pac-10 in almost every statistical category, owing both to playing a tough non-conference schedule and simply not playing as well as hoped in a few areas. Most glaringly, QB Jake Locker is completing just 51 percent of his passes, far below the 65-68 percent goal set by UW coach Steve Sarkisian before the season began. Going 4-for-20 against Nebraska is obviously a big part of that, but Locker also didn't look as sharp as hoped against BYU. Sarkisian has said that future game plans may call for some more high-percentage throws to get Locker in a rhythm.
The running game has been fine overall, though just a step short of being dominant enough to take over games. UW ideally wants to use the run to set up play-action and hasn't quite gotten that totally going yet. A nice revelation so far has been the play of true freshman RB Jesse Callier, who has 143 yards on 20 carries (a 7.2 average) and also has shown an ability to catch the ball. He'll likely get more time going forward.
The Huskies need to get more out of their complementary receivers as Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar have 29 of the team's 47 receptions with no one else having more than three. It will help if James Johnson, the No. 3 WR a year ago but relegated to one catch in one game so far, returns to health; he's been bothered by a sprained ankle.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The big worry going into the season was whether the Huskies had the defensive ends necessary to mount a consistent pass rush. That remains a concern after three games as UW has just one sack from an end and just three from its defensive line -- three others coming on blitzes from LBs or DBs.
Washington is continuing to try to rotate in some younger players at end, notably true frosh Hauoli Jamora, in an attempt to find answers to the pass rush issue. But mostly, UW will either hope for improvement of existing players or try to find some different schemes to bring more pressure.
The LB crew has played pretty well save for a few missed tackles here and there -- senior WLB Mason Foster leads the Pac-10 in tackles with 37. The secondary hasn't been great, either, as UW has just one interception so far -- that coming in garbage time against Syracuse. UW has forced just three turnovers overall, something that also must improve.
--MLB Cort Dennison missed the Nebraska game with a concussion but should return for the USC game.
--WR James Johnson, who sat out two of the first three games with a sprained ankle, should also be back for USC. He caught 39 passes last season as the team's No. 3 receiver but has just one this year in mop-up duty against Syracuse.
--RB Chris Polk will take it easy during the bye week to rest a swollen ankle, but should be good to go against USC.
--Starting SLB Victor Aiyewa also suffered a concussion against Nebraska and sat out the first couple practices of the bye week.