A Winning Finale for UW and Jake Locker With Best Maybe Still Ahead
SAN DIEGO -- It wasn't Jake Locker's idea to stump for Heisman Trophy recognition last summer.
Nor was it the University of Washington quarterback's idea last spring, when ESPN draftnik Mel Kiper touted him as the NFL's No. 1 draft pick for 2011.
Juxtaposed against the hallucinations, er, dreams of others, Locker's 2010 season was a disappointment, but late Thursday night here at the Holiday Bowl, the Huskies senior smiled a winner's smile.
Locker seemed as happy as someone who'd won the Heisman Trophy and been drafted first.
"This," he said after Washington's 19-7 upset of Nebraska, "is the experience I came back for."
"The reality of it was, he came back for this moment," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.
Locker lent footspeed, muscle and timely passes to the most surprising victory of the young bowl season.
Only three months after Nebraska mauled them in Seattle, 56-21, behind 338 yards rushing, the unranked Huskies held the No. 17 Huskers to 91 yards rushing at Qualcomm Stadium.
Washington was without three of its better defensive linemen yet had five sacks and held the Huskers 169 yards below their rushing average.
"We were talented enough to play that football team," Locker said. "We had to be sound mentally and physically, and the outcome could be different, like it was."
Nebraska (10-4) was still in a purple haze late Thursday, in part because the Huskers played like they had corn for brains.
Nebraska's mess of miscues in the first half alone included consecutive delay of game penalties, an illegal pass, a block in the back and two personal fouls.
"It was just a ridiculous performance," said Huskers coach Bo Pelini, whose team was favored by 14 points.
"I'm embarrassed. Obviously didn't get them to play."
The Huskies (7-6) outquicked and overpowered Nebraska's blockers, and both Locker (13 carries, 85 yards) and running back Chris Polk (34-178) did enough with their feet to bring home UW's first bowl victory since the win over Purdue in the 2001 Rose Bowl.
Nebraska's impressive pass defenders limited Locker's aerial options, but the 6-foot-3 quarterback can run really fast and is a 230-pound battering ram when he needs to be.
On a brave first-half run that surely made his prospective NFL employers cringe, Locker took two shots to the helmet, leaving him with a numb face as Sarkisian and the trainers checked on him. Locker's face was still too numb for him to realize that his helmet was blocking his vision.
"I can't see, everything is black," Locker told Sarkisian and the trainer.
Sarkisian: "I think it's your helmet."
Locker: "No, I just can't see."
Next, someone raised his helmet, and, voila, the quarterback could see again.
He returned a few plays later, and soon Nebraska faded to black.
Between him and the Nebraska end zone, Huskers' All-American cornerback, Prince Amukamara, had an angle on Locker early in the third quarter. Giving this Prince a royal shove, Locker finished off the 25-yard scoring run that made it 17-7.
Polk, a bruising sophomore, also stamped purple onto the Nebraska's defense, in part because Locker's running threat diverted Nebraska's Blackshirts. Poor Nebraska got an extra dose of Locker, who was unhindered for the first time by a rib fracture suffered in the season's sixth game.
"Watching film, coach kind of said, 'Hey, you know, with them playing like that, it works really well in pass (defense), but there's not anybody accountable for the quarterback, and if you don't love what you see, pull it down and run,'" Locker said. "He told me to play like I know how to play."
The Huskies are headed in the right direction under Sarkisian, a former offensive assistant to USC coach Pete Carroll who inherited an 0-12 program two years ago. The Huskies were 5-7 in his first season, Carroll's final USC team among their victims. They started out 3-6 this year, but after revving up their tempo in practice and in games, they finished with wins over UCLA, Cal and Washington State to claim third place in the Pac-10 and their first bowl berth since 2002.
Sarkisian's recruiting this year within Washington is drawing praise, too, and the bowl victory in talent-rich southern California -- where the Huskers also hunt -- could broaden Washington's recruiting profile.
"Sarkisian's the right guy, and all of us Huskies are excited to have him on board," Damon Huard, a quarterback on Washington's 1991 national championship team, told FanHouse before Thursday's game.
"I can't believe that two years ago we were an 0-12 team," said Polk, a sophomore.
Locker said he'll be "tuning in to watch the Huskies play" in years ahead. In April, the Huskies likely will be watching their quarterback shake Roger Goodell's hand during the first round of the NFL draft.
Another West Coast quarterback, Andrew Luck, likely will go first overall in the draft if he decides to leave Stanford early. If Locker falls to late in the first round, so much the better, perhaps.
"The best thing for Jake," said Huard, who played for three NFL teams, "would be to go play behind a great pro quarterback who could teach him how to be a pro for a couple of years before he gets his chance. There was nothing better for me than to go and sit behind Dan Marino a few years before I got my opportunity to play. If Jake slides in the draft and goes to a better team where he can learn, it would be best for him."
Locker's career 15-24 record as a starter and statistical slippage this year may lower his draft stock. But the Senior Bowl could be more revealing to NFL scouts because there, Locker will have true NFL prospects on his side. The fifth-year senior has yet to have an offensive teammate taken in the draft, and this year, the Huskies lacked a reliable tight end. The rib injury was another challenge. Playing through the injury, Huard said, was an NFL-type test that Locker passed.
He was 0-for-6 in the first half Thursday, when Marino in his prime would've been 0-for-6. One pass was dropped. Another should' have been caught. The rest were smart throwaways. With a perfect pass that gained 25 yards, Locker set up the only touchdown in the second half. A 57-percent passer this year, he'll need to become more accurate in the NFL. But his 5-for-16 line on Thursday wasn't a negative.
Sarkisian, a former BYU quarterback, said Locker will be a better pro than he was a collegian, "because he's got a real pro mentality."
"I just think he's got the work ethic and the drive to make it happen," he said. "So, somebody's going to get a special guy here in a few months."