Dec. 21, 2010
by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Of course every Husky from Harry on down was pulling for Washington to win its final three games and reach its first bowl since 2002.
Yet no one was rooting harder than Talia Crichton.
"Oh, yeah," the starting defensive end said with a chuckle following a recent practice for the Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska. "I was excited when we made it."
Crichton's junior season was derailed when he injured his knee Oct. 16 against Oregon State and then had arthroscopic surgery. His year looked lost when he tried to come back during the bye week prior to the Nov. 18 game against UCLA. He reinjured the knee while firing off the ball with fellow line mates too vigorously during warm-up drills.
But the 26 days between the Apple Cup victory at Washington State and kickoff in San Diego between the Huskies (6-6) and Cornhuskers (10-3) are providing Crichton an unexpected, extra chance at his seventh game this season. He's back practicing, rejoining a battered defensive line that needs every available and effective body it can find.
Nebraska's offense rolled through the Huskies in September during the Cornhuskers' 56-21 victory. Dive plays to a stable of backs and option keepers by quarterback Taylor Martinez worked wonders against a Huskies defensive line that coordinator Nick Holt said got knocked off the ball far too much on Sept. 18 inside Husky Stadium.
How much Crichton and De'Shon Matthews are able to produce opposite other end Hau'oli Jamora will be a key to whether the Huskies can slow down the `Huskers this time.
"It really starts with maintaining your gap, not getting knocked off the ball. That's really what it is," Holt said of his key to Holiday Bowl success. "Your front has to play really well."
No one is sure how much Crichton will be able to play in San Diego.
"We'll assess it when we get down there," coach Steve Sarkisian said of the trip south that he and the Huskies will make Thursday. "He gets a whole another almost a week to rehab and continue to get right, and then we'll just have to watch him play the game to see what it looks like."
Whatever he can give, Crichton's return is coming at an especially needy time for the Huskies' defensive line. Starting tackle Semisi Tokolahi, who led a late-season revival up front, had surgery recently for the broken ankle he sustained Dec. 4 at WSU. The other tackle, Cameron Elisara, last started in that first Nebraska game and then had a neck and shoulder stinger wreck his senior season.
"If I get five snaps or get 20 snaps, I feel I can help the D-line and its depth. I've been working real hard in rehab," Crichton said, still sweating from more work with the starting defense, "I'm really excited to get back out there and help the team."
Crichton's return and Tokolahi's loss has sent the 244-pound Everrette Thompson back inside at defensive tackle, where he started four games in the middle of the season. That was after Elisara, the D-line's anchor, got hurt. When Tokolahi emerged as an inside force late in the year, Thompson went back to end.
"I wish we had Semisi, and I wish we had Cameron Elisara. But we don't," Holt said. "You play with what you got."
What they do have is Jamora, who leads the line with 45 tackles despite starting only the last six games. The other defensive tackle next to Thompson is junior stalwart Alameda Ta'amu. He and Pac-10 tackling leader Mason Foster are the only two on the Huskies' defensive front seven to start every game this season.
Washington also has 285-pound true freshman Sione Potoa'e for depth at tackle.
Ta'amu thinks Thompson will make up for the loss of Tokolahi at tackle against Nebraska's repeated dive and read-option plays.
"Everrette, to me, is just as good as `Misi in the middle," Ta'amu said.
He needs to be. Nebraska ran for 383 yards in September against the Huskies. Quarterback Martinez plus running backs Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead each rushed for more than 100 yards that day. Big gains on dive plays early freed Martinez on option sprints outside later.
The Huskies admitted to being too preoccupied with Nebraska's quarterback running and not responsible enough for their inside gaps.
Asked why Nebraska is so good at the dive play, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian thought of the Cornhuskers' plowing offenses of the 1970s, `80s and `90s and joked: "Maybe because they invented it."
Sarkisian sees his defensive line's attrition as a product of playing so many must-win games so late into the year.
At least it gives him an area of emphasis beyond this second season of rebuilding the Huskies.
"We'll be OK. `Tis the season, end of the year, defensive linemen getting banged up," Sarkisian said. "That's why it's so imperative to recruit defensive-line play. To create depth at that position is extremely important.''