NCF Nation: Cameron Elisara

Stepping up in the bowls: Washington

December, 28, 2010
Few give the Washington Huskies much of a chance in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl -- in large part because they have already played the Nebraska Cornhuskers this year and the result didn't leave much intrigue: a 56-21 beatdown in Husky Stadium.

While the Huskies used a three-game winning streak at season's end to earn bowl eligibility, it's hardly certain they are a better team today than they were on Sept. 18, particularly with a decimated defensive line that will be missing three key players: Cameron Elisara, Talia Crichton and Semisi Tokolahi.

Obviously, the Huskies defense will have to play much better after giving up 533 yards in the first meeting. But can it? Or will the Huskies just have to outscore the Cornhuskers, which brings along the nation's No. 8 scoring defense?

So let's ask this question: Who might dramatically change this game if he stepped up with a marquee performance?

Quarterback Jake Locker: Too obvious? Well, it's the only answer. For the Huskies to have any chance, Locker needs to turn in his best work this season -- both with his arm and with his feet. And he should be plenty motivated to do so. Recall that the first meeting was widely seen -- here and other places -- as a showdown between Locker, the touted NFL prospect, and perhaps the best secondary in the nation. Well, if that was the case, the Cornhuskers won by knockout. Locker completed just 4 of 20 passes for 71 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown. He also rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown, but the performance was a public failure in a disappointing season for Locker. His NFL draft status started to apparently slide precipitously from sure-No. 1 overall to potentially the second-round. Locker, however, could redeem himself with a big evening, and that could send him into the NFL draft evaluation process with game film that might reignite flagging interest. The horrible result in the first game was hardly only Locker's fault. The Huskies played poorly in all phases. This Seattle Times article does a good job of explaining one area where Locker got little help: his receivers. But the only way the Huskies are going to produce a different result -- even if we're just talking about a competitive game -- is if Locker comes up big.

Pac-10 stock report

October, 27, 2010
Who's running with a bull market? Who's battling the bears (not the Golden ones)?

Stock up

Darron Thomas: Oregon's sophomore QB completed 22 of 31 passes for 308 yards with three TDs and no interceptions in the 60-13 win over UCLA on Thursday. And he was named a semifinalist for the O'Brien Award, given annually to the nation's best quarterback.

Matt Scott: Arizona's backup QB was outstanding in relief of Nick Foles. He completed 18-of-22 for 223 yards with two TDs and zero interceptions against Washington. He also rushed for 65 yards on seven carries in the 44-14 victory. The performance means there's no need to rush Foles back, even though Foles' recovery from a knee injury is ahead of schedule.

Arizona's defense: If defense wins championships, then the Wildcats can't be counted out of the Pac-10 race. They rank No. 7 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 10 in total defense, No. 7 against the run and their 3.57 sacks per game ranks second. Three new LBs? Co-coordinators? Hey, no worries! (Oh, by the way, former coordinator Mark Stoops is doing pretty darn well at Florida State, too.)

California: If Cal were actually a stock, it would have made and lost fortunes for day traders across the country: The team that was humiliated by USC (buy low!) then blew out Arizona State. So, Bears, do you take the show on the road at Oregon State or is it time to sell high?

Marquess Wilson: Washington State true sophomore QB Jeff Tuel has found his go-to guy in Wilson, a true freshman. Wilson caught six passes for 150 yards with a TD at Stanford and he now leads the Pac-10 with 99.5 yards receiving per game.

Stock down

UCLA: The Bruins have been blown out in consecutive Pac-10 games and they've lost starting QB Kevin Prince for the season. Oh, and two offensive starters were suspended for Saturday's game with Arizona, which has the best defense in the Pac-10. Not a good week.

Washington's defense: The Huskies' defense ranks among the nation's worst in most major statistical categories, including 102nd in scoring (33.1 ppg) and 104th vs. the run (202.7 ypg). It doesn't help that they will play host to Stanford, owners of the conference's best O-line, with their best defensive lineman, Cameron Elisara out. He's the second D-line starter to go down -- the other is end Talia Crichton -- for a unit that isn't deep.

Steven Threet: The Arizona State QB got knocked out of the Cal game with a concussion, but not before throwing two more interceptions, giving him a Pac-10-worst 13, as well as the conference's lowest efficiency rating. In response, the Sun Devils' coaches are going to simplify the offense in order to get Threet back on track.

Jake Locker: He's banged up, the Huskies' bowl hopes are sagging and his numbers aren't good. Locker still figures to be a high NFL draft pick -- just probably not as high if he'd left after his junior season. His senior season, at least so far, can't be what he'd hoped for.

Stanford's pass defense: While the overall numbers are OK, the area that could hold Stanford back this year is pass defense. Tuel completed 21 of 28 passes for 298 yards with four TDs at Stanford, and the health of safety Delano Howell is a concern. Locker might be looking to reverse the course of his -- and the Huskies' -- season against the Cardinal secondary.
SEATTLE -- Washington defensive tackle Cameron Elisara has just introduced Jesse Callier to Pac-10 football, running through the freshman running back's pass-block attempt like a knife through soft butter, and now he's breathing into quarterback Jake Locker's ear hole.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
Charles Baus/Icon SMIJake Locker returned for his senior season in hopes of leading the Huskies to a bowl game.
But wait. Locker, at the last moment, scoots to his left with a move that's equal parts casual and lickity split. Then he flicks his right hand. If you performed a similar motion, your penny might fall short of the wishing well. But when Locker flicks a football, oftentimes it flies 40 yards down field, as this one does.

And there it finds receiver Devin Aguilar.

Even a jaded onlooker who's watched plenty football practices finds himself glancing side-to-side to confirm the appropriate reaction: "Golly."

Most quarterbacks would have been sacked. The Locker of 2007 or 2008 probably would have used his 4.4 speed to run for a short -- or perhaps not so short -- gain. But this is Locker 4.0, who bypassed an opportunity to be a top-10 NFL draft pick on April 22 and returned to the Huskies for his senior season. Once seen as just an athlete playing quarterback, now he can play well within a pro-style system while reserving the right to riff a bit of improvisation when the feeling strikes.

"A lot of times when plays break down is when you get your biggest plays," he said. "It's about a good balance of both; of understanding when it's going to be productive to get outside the pocket and try to make a play and when you need to stand in there and make a throw."

This Locker, who accounted for 28 touchdowns in 2009, is expecting to refine his considerable skills in Year 2 under coach Steve Sarkisian and lead the Huskies to their first bowl game since 2002.

"In my opinion, the real strides, the real improvement, occur from Year 1 to Year 2," Sarkisian said. "That's historically what we've seen."

That expectation is shared by more than a few folks. It's why many draft experts are projecting Locker to go No. 1 overall in 2011 -- ESPN's Mel Kiper told reporters it was "etched in stone."

But first things first: Locker has yet to experience a winning season or go to a bowl game in his career. He can't do it alone. What's ignited the buzz in Seattle, however, is that he won't need to. His supporting cast on offense is the match of any in the Pac-10, particularly at the skill positions.

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