- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Washington receiver Jermaine Kearse's final stats looked pretty good after the BYU game. He caught five passes for 108 yards, among them a 43-yard reception and a 19-yard TD. That shouldn't be surprising. Kearse is one of the best receivers in the Pac-10 and quarterback Jake Locker's favorite target.
But the stat box doesn't include drops. Or "what ifs." As in: What if the normally sure-handed Kearse didn't drop three passes? Might that have changed the ultimate number -- the scoreboard reading a disappointing 23-17 in favor of BYU?
"I put too my pressure on myself," said Kearse, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior when asked to diagnose what went wrong on the drops. "It's the first game and you have so much adrenaline going on in the first game."
The dreaded dropsies can be the ruin of a receiver. So it wasn't unfair to wonder how Kearse might respond when the Huskies played host to Syracuse last weekend. It was enough of a concern, in fact, that coach Steve Sarkisian gave his second-team All-Pac-10 receiver a brief pep talk.
"I said, 'Don't try too hard.' Sometimes when a guy doesn't have the best game of his career -- you know, he struggles a little bit -- he can come out and try too hard," Sarkisian said. "I just said, 'Just let the game come to you. You're going to get your opportunities.' And I thought he did that.''
Oh yes he did. Kearse earned Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week honors after hauling in a career-high nine passes for 179 yards with three touchdowns. And no drops. As for the three TDs, each involved him making a play with the ball to get into the endzone. The best one came on the first play of the third quarter, when he transformed a short pass into a 57-yard TD, which sparked the Huskies rout.
Said Locker, whose numbers were far shinier due to Kearse's efforts: "I think Jermaine took it upon himself to really come out and be dominant [against Syracuse] and he was. It was really fun to watch. He expects a lot out himself, and I think you were able to see that [last] Saturday."
Ah, but Locker, Kearse and the Huskies face a far tougher test on Saturday: No. 8 Nebraska. And it's not just that the Cornhuskers are a top-10 team. For Locker and Kearse, it's a matter of facing an elite defense whose strength is the secondary, which might be the best unit in the nation, led by cornerback Prince Amukamara.
While Nebraska lost five starters from last season's dominating defense, including extraordinary tackle Ndamukong Suh, coach Bo Pelini hasn't been shy about saying this year's crew should be better. The Cornhuskers, who often employ seven defensive backs at a time, already have six interceptions.
"You'd like to think you have better odds of running the football, but they hold up pretty well," Sarkisian said. "The minus [for an offense] is, they've got defensive backs not only covering your receivers but covering your tight ends and covering your running backs out of the backfield. So they're able to stay close to guys. There's not a lot of room for error, not a lot of room to throw balls. So there's a real onus on the quarterback to know what coverage it is and anticipate throws and be accurate.''
In other words, Nebraska will pose a major test for Locker to prove he's improved his accuracy. If Locker can complete 60 percent of his passes vs. Nebraska, he can do it against any college defense. And NFL scouts will take note.
And Kearse is Locker's go-to guy, even though the Huskies are deep at receiver. Kearse is third in the nation with 143.5 yards receiving. No. 2 receiver, junior Devin Aguilar, averages 69 yards per game.
"I think we have enough playmakers to make them defend the whole field," Kearse said.
That includes trying to get the running game going with Chris Polk. That might be a significant challenge vs. the Cornhuskers, particularly with a shuffling on the offensive line this week that might make true freshman Erik Kohler a starting guard.
In other words, the Huskies must be consistent in the passing game to win. If Locker makes his national breakthrough, that likely also will mean Kearse posts a "hello world" performance.
"Obviously, I have personal goals," Kearse said. "But those will come with helping the team win."
That means walking off the field with an impressive box score as well as no "what ifs."
3dChantel Jennings and Ted Miller