NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: Five Keys to Washington

By at September 17, 2010 | 7:09 AM | Print

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

It’s a few weeks after an awful season – the kind that makes fans question the whole point of putting on the colors and rooting for their teams on any given Saturday – and the new defensive coordinator has gathered the remaining players for an introductory speech. This being his sole chance to deliver a right cross of a first impression, he lights into them.

I don’t care if a kid’s more talented or he has a bigger heart, he bellows. I’m going to put the 11 best kids who are going to win a game for me out of the field. Get rid of the losing. We don’t do that around here anymore.

This isn’t Bo Pelini at Nebraska in spring 2003. Or the head coach version of Bo in spring 2008. It’s Nick Holt, Washington’s defensive coordinator, in spring 2009, just after the Huskies finished 0-12.

“Tenacious,” UW linebacker Cort Dennison remembers thinking of Holt in that first meeting. Fearless. Emotional. Competitive.

“He expects to win at everything,” Dennison said. “He brings the best out of you. Best coach I’ve ever had.”

That quote could easily apply to half of NU’s defenders, speaking about Bo or Carl Pelini.

As I’ve read about the Huskies this week and talked to some of their players, I see parallels between Washington’s program in 2010 and Nebraska’s in 2008. Young, bright, aggressive guys at the helm. A culture taking hold. Players buying in. The previous coaching staff left behind just enough players worth developing – plus a quarterback whom teammates want to follow.

Like that Joe Ganz-led Husker squad, this Jake Locker-led Husky bunch is flawed – but dangerous. Prone to breakdowns – and creating nightmares. Capable of taking Nebraska to the wire – or crashing against the waves of the moment.

Which Washington appears depends, to some extent, on which NU rolls into Seattle. Safety Dejon Gomes put it best this week when he said the Huskers’ chemistry would be put to the test. They’re talented as all get out, willful, still a shaky at times, and led by Taylor Martinez, the most curious Nebraska player in years.

With haste:

Test for T-Magic: Bo Pelini and Shawn Watson are on record: They think this mysterious, talented redshirt freshman will handle his first road start in stride.

I’m not sure they – or any of Martinez’s teammates – really know.

Martinez’s gift, it would seem, is to erase memories of good or bad plays and take each snap tabula rasa. In Memorial Stadium, against the first two offerings of Steve Pederson’s parting gift, that was true. Martinez was deft and heedless with his play regardless of what, good or bad, had just happened.

Can he translate that to Seattle with the knowledge of the enormity of the game – and the pressure on his shoulders? If he can’t – does Bo Pelini pull him and give Cody Green a shot? And how close by is Zac Lee?

Know this about Bo: When it comes to winning games, he’ll hurt some feelings. He’ll yank a guy.

Working in Martinez’s favor: His big-play ability compels a coach to keep giving him the ball. Not every quarterback, for example, could make up a 14-0 deficit in a quarter. But Martinez could.

Power Play: Washington has to run the ball. Has to. Yes, despite Locker’s arm and athletic talents. Absent a running game, the Blackshirts eat Locker’s lunch. NU commits too many athletes to the pass, tackles too well in space, generates too good of a pass rush, and dials up too exotic of blitzes. If Blaine Gabbert, Landry Jones and Colt McCoy – three more efficient QBs than Locker – couldn’t unravel it, don’t expect Locker to do it in 40 passes.

So the Huskies must run against NU’s smallish, agile front seven. They have the running back, Chris Polk, to do it. The offensive line is young but talented. And Washington will have the advantage of crowd momentum. Should UW run the ball well between the tackles, then it can play to Locker’s strengths – his agility on rollout plays and the playaction pass.

Locker hasn’t been a primary running threat since his freshman season – when he gained 986 yards – but he’s good enough in the zone read to burn the Huskers. But how many hits does head coach Steve Sarkisian want to expose Locker to? UW’s season won’t be defined by Saturday any more than Nebraska’s will.

The Specials: Nebraska has a distinct advantage here. UW is 90th nationally defending the punt, 91st defending the kickoff, 99th in net punting, 107th in punt returns and 117th in kickoff returns. The Huskies are now breaking in a junior walk-on punter after the starter got hurt. NU has some of the best punt (9th) and kickoff (18th) return units in the country, plus kicker/punter Alex Henery, plus kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic.

NU has a 3-to-7-point edge here, and head coach Bo Pelini knows it. That’s why Niles Paul is heading back to return kickoffs this week.

Seattle Sound: Husky Stadium is much like any hostile atmosphere: It’s as tough as the opponent allows it to be with its play. If NU can’t shake Washington, the crowd will surge. Hang a couple touchdowns on the Huskies early, and unplug the purple-and-gold faithful.

We’ve already covered Martinez, so here’s another guy to watch: Running back Roy Helu. He likes these moments. He’s good in a big crowd. He feeds off of it. In some of NU’s toughest road games – Texas Tech and Oklahoma in 2008, Virginia Tech, Missouri and Kansas in 2009 – Helu ran with toughness, consistency and a sense of urgency.

One more: Paul. The talented senior wide receiver has to fight the urge to rush himself. Stay in the moment, and create big plays. Get ahead of it, and create turnovers.

Clutch Time: Washington isn’t to be confused with Virginia Tech in 2009. Certainly not USC in 2006. Perhaps Wake Forest in 2007. But it’s “the game” of this weak non-conference schedule, the one September measuring stick worth remembering. It’s a long trip in front of a big crowd against a team with athletes comparable to Nebraska.

And as such, I’m curious to see which of NU players leaders embrace the moment and begin to take the baton from Pelini and run the team with their own passion and personality.

Check Out Our Two Newest Chalktalks: Jake Locker vs. The Pelini Brothers and What Makes T-Magic Tick

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