Sept. 17, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
LINCOLN, Neb. - Just as they did 12 months ago against Nebraska, the Huskies found themselves falling behind by a huge margin almost instantaneously.
Unlike last September, these Dawgs barked back.
The gritty response - and especially the moxie of sophomore quarterback Keith Price -- may echo through their upcoming Pac-12 season.
Price's 11 touchdown passes in the season's first three games are the most by a Huskies quarterback in any three-game span -- ever. That covers 122 seasons.
In a bottom-line program becoming known for the elevated standards of a bottom-line coach, Washington's 51-38 loss here on Saturday afternoon to Nebraska doesn't cut it. Washington saw it's six-game winning streak end.
Yet the effort and resiliency the Huskies showed against the nation's 11th-ranked team in front of 85,110 screaming for Big Red, the guts battered Price showed on two injured knees while throwing four touchdown passes - two to James Johnson in the final quarter to twice get UW to within 13 points --leave the 2011 Huskies (2-1) better off entering this conference race than they were entering 2010's.
That's the message coach Steve Sarkisian gave his players after this one - but only after he stressed they must eliminate their mistakes.
"A year ago, the same thing happened, Nebraska got out to a big lead. And we folded our tents and lost 56-21," Sarkisian said outside the Huskies' quiet but not devastated locker room beneath Memorial Stadium. "This time, we fought back and didn't quit. I'm proud of the effort.
"It's the end of the first quarter (of the 12-game regular season). And we're ahead."
Yet in almost the same breath, Sarkisian said flatly: "We've got to eliminate our self-inflicted wounds."
Chris Polk bulled through tacklers for 130 yards on 22 carries for his third 100-yard rushing day in as many games since arthroscopic knee surgery a month ago. Yet he was shaking his head while sitting on a metal chair in a room outside his locker area.
"I'm still in disbelief right now," Polk said. "The game could have gone a different way if we didn't shoot ourselves in the foot and if a few of the calls had gone a different way."
The game was tied at 17 late in a wild first half when Nebraska returner Tim Marlowe ran up to field a high but relatively short punt by UW's Kiel Rasp. In doing so, Marlowe ran into a gaggle of players from both teams - and appeared to contact a teammate while the ball glanced off his hands. The Huskies recovered the muffed punt at the Nebraska 25 and were celebrating the chance to take a halftime lead.
But officials called Washington for kick-catching interference, ruling a Husky caused the muff by denying the returner a chance to field the punt.
Sarkisian was livid on the sidelines. He was further frustrated by the fact the play is a judgment call and is thus not reviewable by the replay official, just as a pass-interference or holding penalty cannot be reviewed.
Nebraska (3-0) took the break, the 15-yard penalty, and drove for the go-ahead field goal on the final play of the first half for a 20-17 lead.
Then Washington crumbled.
After a deflating three-and-out by the Huskies' offense to begin the second half, Nebraska methodically marched 56 yards for a 1-yard touchdown run by Rex Burkhead. Washington freshman Bishop Sankey bobbled the ensuing kickoff in the end zone twice, then kicked the ball out the UW 1. He and fellow returner Kevin Smith had chances to secure a recovery but the ball squirted free from them both, and the Cornhuskers recovered amid a scramble at the 1.
Burkhead ran it in from there. Nebraska led 34-17 with just 5 minutes gone in the third quarter thanks to two TDs in nine seconds.
The Huskies will have taken "that next step" when they can overcome such adversity. But this devastating sequence proved too much on Saturday for a team with 16 players making their major-college debut this month.
"The reality of it is, we had a complete meltdown there in the third quarter where we lost our composure a bit," Sarkisian said.
Late in the fateful third, Price -- who completed 21 of 37 throws for 274 yards and now has 11 touchdown throws through three games -- rolled left. While falling he gamely shoveled a toss to Devin Aguilar for a 3-yard gain then felt pain in his left knee, opposite the one he sprained in the opener two weeks ago. Two plays later, the Cornhuskers sacked the limping Price on fourth and 2 from the Nebraska 12.
The Huskers ended that ensuing drive with a 6-yard touchdown run by Aaron Green. That made it 44-17 - and 27 unanswered points in 19 minutes by Nebraska.
Yet the Huskies would not relent. Price withstood Nebraska's relentless and punishing defensive front and his increasing limp to complete 5 of 8 passes in the fourth quarter for 94 yards and the two touchdowns to Johnson, of 10 yards and 52 yards. That, plus a 2-yard touchdown run by Polk, brought the Huskies within 13 points twice in the final period.
"That just shows his heart," Kearse said of Price, the redshirt sophomore who was making his fourth college start.
Price's first TD pass to Johnson of the final quarter made it 44-31. Nebraska then retained possession with 7 minutes left on a hard-hop onside kick attempt by Erik Folk when Kearse was called for not permitting a Cornhusker the opportunity to field the ball high bounce. The rare, third kick-catching interference call of the day by the Big Ten officiating crew against Washington set up Nebraska at the UW 43. Five plays later, Martinez ran around left end for a 6-yard score when Washington's perimeter defenders lost containment, and the Huskies were back down 51-31 with 4:42 remaining.
The Huskies left here on a quiet charter flight home Saturday night believing they would have overcome everything had they not repeatedly erred on defense.
Nebraska was held to 183 total yards by Washington in the Holiday Bowl in December but out-gained the Huskies 464-420 this time - though it hardly helped the Huskies that Nebraska drove 56 yards or less in eight of their nine scoring drives. That was thanks to UW's two turnovers and multiple special-teams issues.
Washington has allowed an average of 452 yards and 36 points per game through the first three games.
"Everybody took their turn to make their mistakes at critical times," Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt said outside the visiting locker room here, while including himself in that assessment. "Starting with the first play of the game."
That was when Kenny Bell got behind Quinton Richardson on a post pattern the Huskies had discussed all week and reiterated just before the opening series began. That gained 50 yards. Nebraska scored on the next play, Tyler Legate's 3-yard touchdown catch from Martinez.
The Huskies' defense stressed assignments on option run plays all week, but sometimes had those defending the pitch man sometimes taking the quarterback or dive back instead. Burkhead ran mostly off tackle and around the ends for 120 yards and two short scores, and the speedy Martinez added 83 to the Cornhuskers' rushing total of 309 yards on 55 carries.
Yet the driven Dawgs kept coming on.
Price threw his second touchdown pass of the final quarter to Johnson on a post-pattern catch and run of 52 yards that made it 51-38 with 4:27. Johnson finished with six catches for 108 yards.
Nebraska then recovered another Washington onside kick. Despite a fourth-down stop by the Huskies' defense, Washington was out of time outs and Price was intercepted on a desperate heave to Kearse with 92 seconds left.
That ended this game, but not UW's resolve heading into conference play next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. against California (3-0) at Husky Stadium.
"That's our motto: Always compete," Polk said. "We are not coached to give up."
They didn't Saturday. They aren't likely to against Cal, or anyone else in the conference, either, this season.
"I'm just happy we kept playing, didn't give up," Price said, managing yet another smile despite ice packs on both knees.
"We'll get it right. Trust me."
QUICK HITS: Polk's 14th career 100-yard day leaves him one behind Greg Lewis for second in school history. Napoleon Kaufman holds the UW record with 17. Polk rushed 34 times for 177 yards and a touchdown in Washington's 19-7 win over the Cornhuskers in the Holiday Bowl nine months ago. ... Nebraska forced two UW turnovers. The Huskies forced one Nebraska fumble, as Sarkisian's preaching that the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game held true again. ... Justin Glenn, starting at FS with Nate Fellner out (hamstring), had 15 tackles and SS Sean Parker had 11 - though it's not a great sign when a team's two leading tacklers have 26 between them on the last line of defense. ... MLB and co-captain Cort Dennison had eight tackles and a sack. OLB Princeton Fuimaono had the other sack, and played through a banged lower right leg. ... Playmaking CB Desmond Trufant made another one, recovering a muffed punt late in the first quarter to give UW possession at the Nebraska 23. Washington converted that into Price's 6-yard scoring pass to Kearse and a brief, 14-10 lead.