Sept. 22, 2009
By Todd Dybas
SEATTLE - Behind black curtains in the depths of Bank of America Arena, LSU coach Les Miles lauded Washington.
Miles was speaking with his team still in uniform and crammed around him. He told them they just faced "one heck of an offense." Miles and crew had just walked up the tunnel from Husky Stadium, a 31-23 winner in the season opener.
But it hardly felt like it, Miles sounding like someone who just pried his leg out of a bear trap as opposed to a spoiled victor. The main reason? The 478 yards Washington's new-look offense rolled up against the Tigers. If not for three mistakes, two of which were turnovers, the Huskies would have knocked off one of the nation's top teams to open the season.
"Jake Locker is mobile and accurate," Miles said. "They've designed a nice scheme that compliments what he does. They're going to get nothing but better. My hat's off to the new coaching staff. It appears to me they are well-prepared and organized. I can tell you that that team will be the most improved team in that conference."
Miles proved prescient thanks to Washington's win over USC last Saturday. Locker and the offense put together a winning, though not perfect, final drive. A first-quarter score also settled the team down, allowing it to eventually go into the half tied 10-10.
New coach Steve Sarkisian came to Washington touted as a top offensive mind, though there were questions about what he could do with Washington's talent level. After all, he came from USC which automatically envelops him in a chicken-egg conundrum. Was it the talent? Was it Sarksian? Or both?
If the first three weeks are any indication, Sarkisian's planning is as dangerous as the players.
The Huskies new offense plugs in part after part. Consistent and confusing motion left LSU defensemen looking to the sideline, hands up. Dealing with the schemes was as much an issue as dealing with the Washington personnel, if you ask LSU.
"They've done a good job of getting their system in," LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "They did a good job mixing it up with their play calling. They were well-prepared, there's no question about that."
The LSU defense tried strong-arm tactics to counter.
Chavis had the Tigers blitz. And blitz. Even for an offensive mind not as sharp as Sarkisian's, the Tigers attempts at pressure were apparent.
So, a screen play was an easy call. Washington offensive lineman let the LSU line go, Locker dumped the ball out to running back Johri Fogerson, and he was off. "Basically all green (in front of him). I saw they brought the house on an all blitz, perfect call," Fogerson said.
His 51-yard play, sprung in part by an excellent block by freshman wide receiver James Johnson, was the big play in Washington's opening drive against LSU. Johnson would score two plays later, assisted by a great block by running back Chris Polk.
The opening drive featured three-wide, four-wide and five-wide sets. I-formation, the shotgun, two tight ends sets and bunched receivers. Fullback Paul Homer, he of the 10 career receptions in the previous three seasons, was in motion and split out at the top of the formation, six inches from the sideline. Other times Homer came back into the formation and dropped into his fullback position to participate in a running play that had three wide receivers on the field. Tight end Kavario Middleton has shifted into a fullback position. Even Fogerson has.
The variations indicative of the crux of Sarkisian's offensive philosophy: spread and confuse.
"Everyone is talking about stretching the field vertically and throwing the ball down the field," Sarkisian said. "We're also big into stretching the field horizontally. Making the defense defend all 53 1/3 yards and if they don't do that, we're going to be able to pop the ball around, throw and catch. We've got to be efficient with that. That comes with one, throwing accurate balls and catching that ball, but two the perimeter blocking needs to do a great job."
Fogerson has emerged as the pass catcher out of the backfield. After being switched back to running back, his high school position, Fogerson said he is very happy to be back on offense. Teaming with Chris Polk, the featured runner in this scheme, Fogerson has allowed Sarkisian an expanded play book. It doesn't hurt that both he and Polk have often been powering through the first defender. Against USC, Polk ground out what Sarkisian referred to Monday as some of the best 71 yards on 25 carries he's ever seen.
"We make tough runs at the second level," Fogerson said. "That's what we're here to do. We get scholarships to break tackles."
As much as the skill positions have been resuscitated, the offense continues to revolve around Locker. The junior's accuracy has been repeatedly questioned, but after three games, he's completing 60 percent of his passes and had a lovely touch throw to Johnson against Idaho. The completion rate is fourth in the conference, though he is by far the leader in attempts. His two throws to Jermaine Kearse during the final drive against USC were critic-silencers. For Sarkisian, a diamond precise thrower in his quarterback days, the questions about Locker's accuracy have been answered.
"I hope so," Sarkisian said. "And I hope he continues to answer it. I think Jake -- and I'm going to keep saying it -- has all the tools to be as special a player and quarterback as there is in the country, if not the best."
Three weeks into the season, the Huskies lead the Pac-10 in passing offense. Locker leads the conference in passing yards per game. He also leads the conference in total offense at 288.3 yards per game. Washington is atop the Pac-10 in third-down conversions, thanks in part to Locker's legs -- even when he is not running for the first down -- as well as his throws.
"Locker is the whole story," Miles said. "Locker and (Chris) Polk. They mix in plays and he's very accurate, he's a seasoned quarterback and he's really comfortable in the game, in the play calls. He's a real capable hand to run that offense."
Carroll couldn't agree more. While under fire from the Los Angeles media for the play-calling Saturday on both sides of the ball - not to mention a loss to a team that had lost 15 of 16 -- Carroll has repeated his admiration for Locker. Prior to the game, Carroll said Locker was the best he has seen at quarterback in the Pac-10 since he's been the head of the Trojans. Postgame, nothing changed.
"I think the difference in this game was Jake," Carroll said. "I thought he was able to come up and make the plays when they really needed it in the last drive. The great scramble pass on the third down and long that he hit. We're sitting on the route waiting for the route to be thrown and he still made it.