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Loose, Confident Huskies 'Embracing' Huge Opportunity At Nebraska
Release: 09/16/2011
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Sept. 16, 2011

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by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

LINCOLN, Neb. - Steve Sarkisian sat on a metal bench on the visiting team's sideline with his legs crossed, coolly chewing sunflower seeds.

Chris Polk led a parade of Huskies trying to hit the white goal post on the south end of Memorial Stadium with passes lofted from the red, block "N" painted on the 50-yard line.

Players commented how much they loved the fast, artificial turf on Nebraska's home field as they ran across it during a 45-minute walk-through practice in the gray chill.

The confident Huskies (2-0) aren't just meeting this challenge of the 11th-ranked Cornhuskers (2-0) Saturday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here at GoHuskies.com with another live, exclusive-access game chat).

They are seizing it.

"We are a pretty loose team. We have fun when it's time to have fun," Sarkisian said outside Memorial Stadium late Friday afternoon, before he got on the team bus and rode back to the hotel in north Lincoln.

"They embrace the environment. You really embrace it. You come together, 76 guys on the trip, the coaches and the staff, you come together as one."

The mantra for this trip amid all this red: "We're all we got."

Earlier Friday, kindergarten kids greeted the Huskies in a parking lot in north Lincoln with smiles and an in-unison cheer of "Welcome to Nebraska!" The kids, some of them wearing Cornhuskers red gear, then got a thrill. The Huskies players detoured from their routes onto the team bus, walked over and gave the children high fives.

The graciousness was reminiscent of the scene after the last time Washington won here, in 1991. That impressed crowd inside Memorial Stadium gave those Huskies a standing ovation after they beat their beloved Huskers.

UW did it again to heavily favored Nebraska last December, in the Holiday Bowl.

Can the Dawgs do it yet again, in front of 85,000 red screamers here in the unheard-of third meeting of Huskies and Huskers in 12 months?

"Everybody said that game, the Holiday Bowl, they weren't ready. I feel everybody is ready, especially in a bowl game," defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu, a key to Washington's mission Saturday, said of a Cornhuskers team that won at Washington 56-21 last September.

Ta'amu recovered a fumble, had a sack and drew a safety on a penalty in that bowl victory in San Diego - part of the Huskies' six-game winning streak that is tied for the nation's fourth-longest active one.

"But this game is a game for us as a team to prove that we can continue to where we left off at last year and still play at that level," he said. "This is just another game, like the old cliché. But it's a special game. It's the tiebreaker. Now we get to see who wins the series.''

This is the Huskies' latest opportunity toward what Sarkisian often refers to as "that next step" back among the elite in the Pac-12 and the nation: Playing a storied, national power on the road with a nationwide TV audience watching.

"It would be a big statement," Ta'amu said.

Sarkisian, of course, has more tangible concerns than the upper hand in this rare miniseries.

"The key for us in this game -- forget the rubber match and the revenge and all that stuff -- it's how we respond as a team," he said. "How we can go on the road for the first time in 2011, hanging together and be together in a hostile environment, live through some of the mistakes or some of the plays that don't go our way, stay mentally tough -- which we pride ourselves on being -- and fight through and find a way in the fourth quarter. To be in a tight ball game and ultimately close and finish.

"It's nothing against Nebraska and their fans, but this trip is really more about us than them. It's our ability to go on the road, regardless of the opponent, and do this thing. We got better at it last year as a football team ... I thought we grew together on the road last year.

"And this has got to be the next step this year as we go on the road."

To complete that step, Washington must do three things here on Saturday:

• Account for speedy Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez on option plays.

"Yeah, I get to play the run. I love playing the run," Ta'amu said, after facing 117 called pass plays in UW's first two games.

• Contain Martinez inside the tackle box when he drops to throw against a Huskies defense that has allowed 403 yards passing per game through two week, or when he seeks to scramble.

• Establish Polk and the running game early by going directly at Nebraska's defense, to control the game offensively and to set up play-action passes to UW's deep and talented skill players.

Even with Jake Locker now in the NFL, Washington has more weapons in its passing game this time than it did in the Holiday Bowl. There's 6-foot-6 freshman Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who caught his first career touchdown pass in last week's win over Hawaii, now at tight end. There's classmate Kasen Williams joining emerging Kevin Smith at wide receiver.

That's in addition to what's been outside, seniors Jermaine Kearse, a 1,000-yard receiver last season, and Devin Aguilar, who had 131 yards receiving and a touchdown pass from Keith Price last week. Those two have worked all spring and summer on getting off the line and being more physical at the start of their routes. Saturday will be a test to see how far they've progressed.

There are other differences from last year's meetings.

Washington has lost leaders such as Locker on offense and Mason Foster and Nate Williams on defense from 2010. Nebraska is without Roy Helu Jr., who ran wild last September at Husky Stadium, and the majority of a punishing, brilliant defensive secondary that pushed Huskies receivers through the sideline boundaries in both 2010 meetings.

The Cornhuskers, who have defeated Chattanooga (40-7) and Fresno State (42-29 last week, after taking their first lead in the third quarter), also have new linebackers, a new offensive coordinator who is featuring Martinez more on option plays plus a reworked offensive line. They also have a freshman kickoff returner Ameer Abdullah, who ran one back 100 yards for a score last week and is why Nebraska leads the nation in average yards per kickoff return.

Yet some things are likely to stay the same.

Just as they did in the Holiday Bowl and throughout the final two months of last season, the Huskies will rely on Polk to lead their offense that had 466 yards Saturday against Hawaii. Polk has had two 100-yard games in two starts this season, and now has 13 in his career. That's third-most in UW history behind Greg Lewis (15) and Napoleon Kaufman (17). His running fits the physical brand of football that Sarkisian has been preaching each day to his team since last November.

Sarkisian said Polk is fully ready to carry the ball as much or more than the 34 rushes (for 177 yards) he had the last time UW met Nebraska. The junior, 1,400-yard rusher in 2010 had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 18.

He is running behind an offensive line that starts redshirt freshman Colin Tanigawa at left guard and sophomores Colin Porter and Erik Kohler on the right side. They will be blocking a Nebraska front that is essentially the same as the one UW saw last season.

Also the same for the Huskers: Martinez is still fast. He sped past Huskies last September in Seattle. But in December's rematch Washington's defense was far more disciplined in containing him. When the Huskies battered him out of the game on a sack by Ta'amu in the second half, the Holiday Bowl was effectively over.

"Fast as hell," is how Ta'amu describes Martinez. "Crazy fast still. And the O-linemen are still big, still huge.

"Not much has changed. We just have to get after it."

Price can't wait to do that. He knows what to expect here on the road, with a sea of opposing colors roaring against him. He made his first college start at No. 1 Oregon in November, when Locker had a broken rib.

"Oh, yeah. I'm excited," Price said, with his usual, huge smile. "I want to see how good our football team is

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