December 24, 2010

A second look at the Washington Huskies

Nebraska will be seeing some familiar faces when it takes the field in a Holiday Bowl rematch against against a Washington team it beat 56-21 back on Sept. 18. However, a lot has changed about the Huskies since that first meeting.

With just a week left before the Huskers play their final game of the 2010 season, decided to catch up with Washington and take a look at what to expect from the Huskies the second time around.

The biggest differences

A calmer, cooler Locker: One could argue that the pressure placed on Washington senior quarterback Jake Locker to put up big numbers against Nebraska's defense was almost as difficult for him to deal with as the Blackshirts themselves.

After his dismal 4-of-20 passing for 71 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in Seattle, Locker's draft stock plummeted from a projected No. 1 pick to a mid- to late-round selection. However, as far as this game is concerned, that's not all a bad thing.

Not only has Locker settled down considerably and led the Huskies to three straight wins to close the regular season, he's also started to utilize his running ability far more since his cracked rib finally healed.

Polk's emergence: Though he only rushed for 55 yards on 11 carries in the first meeting, sophomore running back Chris Polk has emerged as one of the best young backs in the Pac-10 Conference this season.

He's rushed for 1,238 yards so far this season, and his average of 103.2 yards per game rank second in the Pac-10 and 16th nationally. Polk went on to earn second-team all-conference honors, and capped off the regular season with a career-best 284 yards against rival Washington State.

With the way Nebraska struggled stopping Washington's running game early on in the September game, he could be a real handful for the Huskers.

UW defense coming of age: Part of the reason Washington was able to turn its season around down the stretch was the improved play of its defense over the final three games.

After giving up an average of 43 points in a 1-3 stretch midway through the season, the Huskies allowed just 16 points and 284.6 yards per game during its three-game winning streak. Linebacker Mason Foster led the Pac-10 with 151 total tackles and was named first-team all-conference and third-team All-American.

Husky safety Nate Williams also earned second-team all-Pac-10 honors, as he finished third in the Pac-10 in tackles.

What's happened since?

While Washington was able to rebound from the Nebraska thumping the next week with a 32-31 win over Southern California, it went on to drop four of its ensuing five games with the lone victory coming in double-overtime over Oregon State.

Sitting at 3-6 with three games to go, it looked as if Locker and the rest of UW's senior class would go through their entire collegiate careers without having ever played in a bowl game. Just when it seemed all postseason hope was lost, though, the Huskies started to get hot.

By winning their final three games of the year over UCLA, California and Washington State, the Huskies were able to finish the regular season at 6-6 and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2002.

Statistically, Washington ended the regular season ranked 75th nationally in total offense (364.4 ypg), 77th in passing offense (200.3), 45th in rushing offense (164.2), 84th in total defense (401.2), 103rd in rushing defense (197.2) and 34th in passing defense (202.4).

Offensive players to watch

Jake Locker, QB: As was the case heading into the first meeting this season, Washington's offense goes entirely through Locker. While he's had his share of struggles and definitely hasn't put up the numbers many expected during his senior year, Locker was still able to right the ship and guide the Huskies to their first bowl game in eight years. He finished the regular season with 2,209 passing yards and 22 total touchdowns.

Chris Polk, RB: One of the most productive running backs in the Pac-10 this season, Polk's emergence has been one of the biggest reasons for Washington's late-season turnaround. Including his monster game in the Apple Cup against Washington State, Polk rushed for a total of 508 yards and four touchdowns in UW's past three games.

Jermaine Kearse, WR: A 1,000-yard receiver this season, junior Jermaine Kearse earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors and was Locker's go-to guy all year long. His 45-yard touchdown catch was one of Washington's lone highlights against Nebraska, and he ended up hauling in the second-most touchdown catches of any wide out in the conference with 12.

Offensive players to watch

Mason Foster, LB: There's no question who the heartbeat of Washington's defense is, as Foster has been the face of the unit all season long. Along with being the Huskies' most decorated player this year, his 151 total tackles were 51 more than any other player on the defense.

Nate Williams, S: Williams was the only other Washington defender to register triple-digit tackles this season (100), but it's been his role as the leader of the secondary that has made the senior so valuable to the Huskies and a second-team all-conference selection. Oddly enough, his 3.5 sacks on the year rank only behind Mason for the team lead.

Nathan Fellner, S: While Williams gets the bulk of the attention, it's fellow safety Nathan Fellner who has arguably been one of the biggest difference makers for Washington's defense. The sophomore leads the team with four interceptions, eight pass breakups and 12 passes defended.

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