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Montlake Jake

Jake Locker was a part of Husky football long before he enrolled at the University of Washington in 2006.  His legend, of a state champion quarterback with lightning feet and the size and toughness to be recruited as a safety by USC, had long since rolled south from Ferndale.  He was Montlake Jake before stepping on campus, destined to resurrect a football program suffering through its worst seasons in decades. 

The legend only grew when he turned down major league baseball, something that his almost predecessor Matt Tuiasosopo didn’t do several years earlier.  He spent 2006 redshirting, to some controversy.  The team could have used him, and many were concerned that Jake would be gone to the NFL as soon as he became eligible.  Regardless, it was no surprise when he easily won the starting job in 2007 and made his debut at Syracuse.

It was everything Husky fans had hoped for.  Jake ran up and down the field, showing the lightning speed and strong arm that had so long been rumored.  He wasn’t polished by any means, especially his passing, but that was to be expected from a freshman making his first start, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him leading the Huskies to a Rose Bowl win a few years later before becoming the first pick in the draft.  The talent was that obvious, that mind-blowing.

And then things didn’t quite go to plan.  2007 was respectable but disappointing, more from a team standpoint than individual.  Expectations were fairly high coming into 2008.  The Huskies started the year with losses, none more devastating than against BYU, where the now infamous celebration penalty against Jake cost the Huskies a possible win.  Still, Jake’s passing looked improved, and the poise he showed in leading that last minute drive against BYU would surely be put to better use down the road.  In the fourth game of the year, against Stanford, everything fell apart.  Jake broke his thumb while blocking, and stayed on the sidelines for the rest of the year.  The rest of the team spiraled lower than anyone thought possible.  Tyrone Willingham was fired but allowed to coach the rest of the season, and the team lost all will to fight.  They went winless, even falling to the equally hapless Cougars in the Apple Cup.  Some argue that the talent on that squad was better than most winless teams, but few teams have ever been as low emotionally as the 2008 team was to end the season.

2009 brought a new coach in Steve Sarkisian and a new attitude, along with Locker’s return.  The turn-around they made that season now seems nothing short of remarkable.  Central to the season was an astonishing upset against #3 USC, as Jake calmly led UW down the field for a last second field goal to win.  The season was up and down, ending in five wins, but the Huskies won their last two against WSU and Cal in dominating fashion, leading to huge expectations for 2010 and that potential #1 spot in the draft for Locker, if he wanted to leave early to take it. 

No one would have been a bit surprised if he had left, and the national media had pretty much written him off as a former Husky, when he walked into Sarkisian’s office with his new dog, Ten, and nonchalantly announced that he was coming back for one more year.  Fans started talking of the Heisman and winning eight or nine games, a juggernaut offense behind Jake, Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse a seeming certainty.

The only problem was that the team just wasn’t that good yet.  The offensive line, along with the rest of the offense, struggled, and the defense was inconsistent.  The Huskies lost a winnable opener to BYU, beat Syracuse, and then got crushed by Nebraska.  They beat USC again and won a thriller at Husky Stadium against Oregon State, but Jake spent the second half of the season nursing broken ribs and the Huskies dropped three straight to a murderer’s row of Arizona, Stanford and Oregon to fall to 3-6.  Even with three winnable games remaining, hopes for a bowl game were nearly gone, and Jake’s reputation had taken a major hit during an inconsistent and lackluster season.

Then UCLA came to town on a cold Thursday night.  It was close for the first half of the game before UCLA began to fall apart.  UW seemed to grow up that game, sensing the victory was theirs to take, and they finally took it.  By the end it was a laugher, with the Huskies pounding on a completely inept Bruin offense.  The Huskies next went to Berkley in a faceoff of two teams trying to keep their bowl hopes alive.  Cal’s offense was nearly as bad as UCLA’s, but UW had a difficult time against a stout Bear defense.  Trailing by three in the final minutes, Jake again took over.  Clearly still hampered by the rib injury.  He threw a long pass that Kearse made a great play on en route to moving the Huskies to the goal line in the final minute.  The Bear defense stopped them there, however, and it looked like the Huskies would settle for a field goal to tie it.  Sarkisian decided otherwise, and in a play that may have single-handedly restored Husky football  to its traditional state of toughness and excellence, Chris Polk plunged through the line untouched, and the Huskies were 5-6 going into the Apple Cup.

Jake again wasn’t perfect against the Cougars, throwing an interception just before halftime that made a close game out of what probably should have been a blowout.  Polk made the difference, though, running for 284 yards, and the Huskies found themselves in the now familiar spot of having the ball in the final minutes of a tie game.  Locker and Polk again marched down the field, and Jake threw a perfect pass to Kearse for a go-ahead touchdown. 

The Huskies would play in the Holiday Bowl.  Montlake Jake’s legend was cemented in Husky lore.

No one expected a win in the Holiday Bowl rematch against Nebraska, and now, of course, no one will ever forget it.  The team seemed to finally take on the full personality of Jake Locker, dominating with their toughness, playing loose and aggressive and fast.  They exerted their will and did whatever was necessary to win.  When Jake found no open receivers for nearly the entire game, he calmly threw the ball away or scrambled for first downs.  The offense came differently, with a pass from Jesse Callier to Locker, and then Polk and Locker ripped the heart out of the Cornhuskers as they ran over and through their vaunted defense.  Mason Foster, in many ways Locker’s twin on defense, led an effort that saw the Huskies dominate the line of scrimmage and limit the Huskers to under 150 yards of total offense before a late desperation drive brought the total to 189.  Before that last drive, the defense held Nebraska to an incredible -36 yards in the fourth quarter. 

The final score was 19-7, but the domination was greater than even the score would tell

Now, the legend of Montlake Jake is complete.  It didn’t end in a Rose Bowl win or national championship, there is no Heisman, and Jake won’t be the #1 pick overall.  And yet, I don’t know that The Jake Locker Era could have been any more satisfying if all that had come true.  It feels as though it took a complete collapse that sent this football team to the lowest place imaginable for Jake Locker to get a chance to show who he is and what he could do.  This team was remade in his image.  For all his physical gifts that fans will marvel about for decades, what will be most remembered is his calm eyes in the biggest moments, his toughness, his loyalty, and a level of character not often seen in college football.

College football is the ultimate fan sport, and only so often do players come along that connect with the fans on a special level.  The only such Husky I remember is Marques Tuiasosopo, whose charisma and late game heroics will be etched in my mind forever.  I wasn’t quite old enough to have those type of ties with the early ’90’s teams, although I’m sure there are plenty who do.  My dad seems to remember Sonny Sixkiller that way.  Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson were certainly that on the basketball court.  Reggie Williams and others had the onfield talent and production to be remembered, but for whatever reason, there was never quite the connection with the fans that moved them to that other level.

Jake Locker is that kind of player who will be remembered forever by anyone who watched him these past four years.  His physical talents were incredible, but it is our good fortune as football fans that the intangible gifts that separated him from others are what also allowed him to bring Husky football back from the dead. 

Jake Locker is everything we could ever want a football player to be.  There will never be another Montlake Jake, but his legend will live forever.

-Matthew

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Holiday Bowl Preview

The Huskies play the Nebraska Cornhuskers in about 4 hours.  Quickly, here are 5 keys I have to the game.

  • Stopping the run. The Huskies are playing with a depleted defensive line, missing 3 guys who played a significant amount of time this year.  They’re going up against a gigantic offensive line that Nebraska has.  We saw one result earlier in the year in which the Huskers ran away from the Dawgs.  If the Huskies want to have a chance tonight they can’t get ran over by Nebraska.  Expect the Huskies to load the box and force Taylor Martinez to pass.  Cort Dennison will get to play in this rematch, which has to help a little bit.  Nebraska will get their rushing yards, but we can’t let them go crazy like they did in September.
  • Limit the big plays. This killed the Huskies in the first meeting.  There were too many missed tackles, and Nebraska took advantage.  There were too many turnovers, and Nebraska took advantage. Yes, Nebraska had a few sustained drives, but most of their scores came on quick strikes.  We have to limit those this time around.
  • Start Fast. The Dawgs fell into a 14-0 hole last time against Nebraska and never could climb back into it.  They need to at least keep pace with the Huskers this time, and getting some early momentum would be huge.  We have most of the intangibles on our side, if we get some momentum this would be huge for our team.
  • Establish the run. The Huskies only success in the last game against Nebraska came by running the football.  The running game has been the bread and butter for the Huskies 3 game winning streak and it needs to be again tonight.  We all remember how good the Husker secondary is so the running game needs to be established to loosen them up.  Look for Locker to run more than he has all season.  Which leads me to….
  • Jake Locker. Much has been made of Locker having a second chance against Nebraska.  In a way, it’s fitting.  Locker came to UW when it was at its lowest point and now they’re playing in a bowl game; Locker’s lowest point came against Nebraska and now he gets a chance for redemption in his final game.  I don’t see him laying an egg like he did the first time.  I don’t see him having an amazing game either.  It will be another, gritty Locker performance that we’ve all taken for granted.  His legacy is already completed, but if UW wants a chance in this game they need one more chapter written by this Husky legend.

In all honesty, I don’t see the Huskies winning.  I think they lose by 10 or 14, call it Nebraska – 37 Huskies – 27.  With that being said, don’t forget how great it is to be here.  Put on your purple, and be proud to be a Husky fan today.  Go Dawgs!

Andrew

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Bowl Talk…Knock On Wood

Forgive me for discussing this, because I know without an Apple Cup win, none of this matters, but I just can’t help it. It’s been too long since we could entertain legitimate bowl talk, so allow me to put the cart ahead of the horse (did I get that right Matt?). Also, I doubt very much if anything written on this blog can jinx the football Gods.

2 weeks ago, in a previous post I stated

If UW beats UCLA and Cal, and Oregon and Stanford handle their remaining games, the Huskies will be playing for a Holiday Bowl bid in the Apple Cup on 12/4. Believe big!

Well, heading into the Apple Cup, everything has followed this script perfectly. And with a win on Saturday, the Washington Huskies will be invited to either the Holiday Bowl (Thursday, 12/30, 7 pm) or possibly the Alamo Bowl (Wednesday, 12/29, 6:15 pm). Either scenario would be terrific, and it couldn’t have happened without the Huskies climbing towards 6 wins, and also some good fortune in what has been a crazy 2010 season.

Let’s remember, the Alamo Bowl and Holiday Bowl are slated to be represented by the Pac-10 #2 and #3 teams respectively. In most years, 9 or 10 wins is usually required to play in either game. But this is no ordinary year. For starters, the conference is ultra competitive, and the fallout has been an unusually low number of bowl eligible teams. In addition, Oregon is undefeated and likely headed towards the championship game, which means they won’t fill any of the conference’s affiliated bowl slots. Mix in a 1 loss Stanford team that has also worked their way into the BCS, and suddenly the remaining eligible teams get to fill some pretty desirable bowl slots.

What we know is that in either case, the Huskies would be matched up against a Big 12 opponent—Alamo Bowl (Big 12 #3), Holiday Bowl (Big 12 #5). The Big 12 is no slouch, especially the conference’s top 5 teams. In fact, the BCS rankings have all 5 in the top 20. Oklahoma (#9), Missouri (#12), Nebraska (#13), Oklahoma St. (#14), Texas A&M (#18). Oklahoma faces Nebraska on Saturday to determine who gets the Fiesta Bowl bid. Conventional wisdom says the loser will be rewarded the Cotton Bowl, which is affiliated with the Big 12 #2 team. However, a little known fact is that the bowls actually have a lot of say in who they invite, and lots of factors play into their decision, so it’s tough to predict where each Big 12 team will land.

As for the Pac-10, I thought that if Arizona were to lose to Arizona State, the Huskies would claim the Alamo, until I learned that the bowls get to pick. It seems likely that the Alamo Bowl would prefer Arizona for a multitude of reasons. First, they beat the Huskies. Secondly, they have a better overall record, and were ranked for most of the year. On the downside, a loss to ASU would mean ‘Zona has lost 4 in a row, compared to a hot Washington team. If the Wildcats beat the Sun Devils, their Alamo ticket is sealed. With a loss, and some other factors playing out, it is possible that Washington is selected by the Alamo Bowl. No matter the fallout, I don’t see the Huskies facing Nebraska, because no bowl is going to want that re-match.

The possibilities are endless, but if the Huskies win the Apple Cup, there’s a high probability they end up in the Holiday Bowl, against Missouri or Oklahoma State. If I had to pick today, my guess is a Washington-Missouri matchup.

-Dan

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Good Guys’ 2010-11 NCAA FB Predictions

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