Sept. 18, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Coach Steve Sarkisian has already sent the message. And his Huskies are already absorbing it.
All of Washington's goals in this season of high expectations remain within reach. A first bowl game since 2002. Contention in the wide-open Pac-10.
It's just hard to see that perspective right this moment.
"All our goals are still there in what lies ahead _ but we've got to get better now," Sarkisian told his players inside a quiet locker room minutes after eighth-ranked Nebraska used a swarming defense and a power-first, sprint-later offense to beat the Huskies 56-21 on an otherwise sunny Saturday at sold-out Husky Stadium.
"We've already talked about it: This is just non-conference. We're not even into the Pac-10 yet," Huskies safety Nate Fellner said later.
Senior quarterback Jake Locker pointedly stuck to Washington's previous stance that the UW will play in a bowl game this winter.
"It's only the third game of the year, man. It's only one of 13," he said.
Locker was noticeably off his superior game from his first pass, which was intercepted.
Locker agreed Nebraska's was the best defense he's seen in college. But as good as Nebraska was, Washington made them look even better.
"Unfortunately, we didn't play the way I think we're capable of playing -- and I'm not going to back off that," Sarkisian said, his eyes remaining on the bigger picture beyond this day.
"I know we are a better football team than what we put on the field today, in all three phases. I know we can tackle better than that. I know we can throw better than that. I know we can protect the quarterback better than that.
"Fortunately, those weren't conference games," the coach said of UW's 1-2 start. "It's unfortunate today went the way it did, because we are better than that."
Nebraska used two and sometimes three extra defensive backs, and often blitzed a few of them. When Corhuskers weren't hitting or harassing Locker, his passes often missed. He finished 4 for 20 passing for 71 yards. It was his lowest completion percentage for a game in his brilliant career.
"They did a good job, man. That defensive scheme they have is really well-coached and well-executed," Locker said. "I give credit to them. They are a very talented defense.
"We just couldn't get our passing game going."
Locker had his second rushing score of the season, threw 45 yards to Jermaine Kearse for his sixth touchdown pass in three games. He was intercepted for the first two times in 2010. He got back to some of his running roots, leading Washington with 59 yards rushing on 11 carries. His touchdown run came off a scramble on a called pass play.
Physically, Locker said he is fine. He noted his biggest hit of the day came running into a TV cameraman at the end of his 7-yard touchdown run. That cut Nebraska's lead to 14-7 late in the first quarter.
The Huskies, who equaled last week's season high of 175 yards rushing, get a bye week that Sarkisian said he will use to stress fundamentals such as tackling. They then head into the Pac-10 for the rest of the season, beginning on Oct. 2 at USC.
"We need it," Sarkisian said of the bye. "We're beat up. We're physically beat up, and mentally beat up, too."
A raucous crowd of 72,876 - with an estimated 20,000 Nebraska fans making up Husky Stadium's largest turnout since the 2007 Apple Cup - roared and the venerable stadium's south stands shook early as the Huskies overcame the Cornhuskers' quick 14-0 lead.
"The Washington crowd, man, it's loud," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who plays in front of crowds of 85,000-plus back home.
But Washington was like everyone else Nebraska has seen: it had trouble stopping the Cornhuskers' running game that entered the day third in the nation at almost 350 yards per game then gained more Saturday. Early on they pounded the ball inside in old-fashioned Huskers' power ball. That opened up the outside in the second half.
The Huskies contained Nebraska's dynamic redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez in the first half, holding him to just 25 yards on 11 runs. But on the first play after halftime, Martinez faked the inside handoff that Washington undoubtedly spent halftime preparing for and dashed around the extended arm swipe of contain main Victor Aiyewa. Aiyewa was the only Husky to touch Martinez on his 80-yard touchdown that gave the Cornhuskers a 35-14 lead.
Washington gamely answered in two plays, a 33-yard run by Locker and then a 45-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse. It was Kearse's seventh consecutive game with a touchdown catch, and he has 11 scores in that span.
But it was 35-21 for only 103 seconds. That's how long elapsed before Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. jumped over one Husky and took off outside on a 65-yard run. That made it 42-21 and effectively ended it 3 minutes into the third quarter.
Martinez ran for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries. Helu ran 10 times for 110 yards and two scores. And Rex Burkhead added 104 yards on 13 inside runs and a touchdown for Nebraska (3-0).
Nebraska finished with 533 total yards, to Washington's 246.
"All that stuff is correctable, really correctable," Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt said.
Nebraska had 111 yards and 14 points 4 minutes into the game, and it threatened to be a runaway. Four plays in, Locker underthrew Devin Aguilar on a post route into double coverage. Nebraska nickel back Eric Hagg easily intercepted the forced pass.
Two plays later, Martinez threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Mike McNeill and Nebraska led 7-0.
After a three and out drive by Washington, Martinez connected for 55 yards on a pass and run by Brandon Kinnie, who spun out of a tackle attempt by Huskies cornerback Quinton Richardson near midfield. Martinez ran in from 1 yard to make it 14-0 Nebraska before many of in the big crowd had even gotten into the stadium.
But just as they did at home last week in beating Syracuse, the Huskies responded immediately to the early adversity.
Washington kept to the ground with Chris Polk and freshman Jesse Callier on a settling, 11-play march that ended with Locker's 7-yard touchdown run inside the goal-line pylon. That made it 14-7 after one quarter.
Nebraska also won the second quarter 14-7. Martinez converted a third and 16 from midfield by finding Niles Paul on a 21-yard pass. That set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Helu that made it 21-7.
The Cornhuskers' first big mistake got Washington back in the game. Nebraska inserted sophomore Cody Green into the game for Martinez at quarterback for one play midway through the second quarter. Green fumbled on a hit by Talia Crichton, and Fellner returned the fumble to the Huskers 6.
Polk's 2-yard run two plays later cut Nebraska's lead to 21-14. But the Huskers then embarked on an eight-play power drive that looked like it was called by Tom Osborne and had Mike Rozier running behind those mammoth Nebraska offensive linemen of the 1980s. The march ended with Martinez scoring his second touchdown of the half on a 1-yard sneak.
That had Nebraska ahead 28-14 at halftime, as Locker began just 2 for 10 passing.