When this matchup was first announced three years ago, this game didn't look like much of a game. True, it was between two BCS conference opponents...but both were a shadow of their former selves. The Huskers went 5-7 in 2007, of course, and sent Bill Callahan back to the NFL where he belonged, as an assistant coach. Things were a little worse in Seattle, where the Washington Huskies went 4-9. Washington waited another season before firing Tyrone Willingham after an 0-11 season in 2008, then hiring USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
The Huskies began to rebound last season, going 5-7 in 2009. At first glance, 5-7 doesn't look all that impressive (except in comparison to that 0-11)...but look deeper. An overtime loss at Notre Dame and a one point loss at UCLA shows that Washington wasn't all that far from being a bowl team last season. And when you consider that Washington returns 18 starters from last season's team, you can see why some people consider the Huskies a darkhorse candidate to win the Pac-10 in 2010.When anybody talks about Washington, the conversation starts with Jake Locker. Locker threw for 2800 yards and 21 touchdowns last season with 11 interceptions. He's a true dual-threat quarterback who was the second leading rusher on the team with 388 yards. Looking at some highlights from last season, he reminds you a bit of Scott Frost with his running ability. Sarkisian has really improved Locker's passing skills and decision-making, and that's the reason why many consider Locker to be a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy this season.
Sophomore running back Chris Polk had an impressive freshman season, rushing for 1,113 yards and five touchdowns in 2009, earning him honorable mention All-Pac 10. There's almost no experience behind Polk, but incoming freshmen Deontae Cooper and Jessie Callier were four-star recruits from California.
Locker's favorite target last season was junior Jermaine Kearse, who caught 50 passes for 866 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He was second team all-Pac 10 last season, and is getting some mention this preseason as one of the top receivers in college football. He'll line up with fellow junior Devin Aquilar (42 receptions, 593 yards, 5 touchdowns despite missing two games) and sophomore James Johnson (39 receptions, 422 yards, 3 touchdowns). Tight end Kavario Middleton caught 26 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Four starters return on the offensive line including junior Senio Kelemete and senior Ryan Tolar, who both were named honorable mention all-Pac 10 last season. All told, that's ten returning starters on the offense who've now spent a year honing Sarkisian's system which wasn't too shaby at USC.
On defense, the Huskies return eight players, but two of the players they lost were their best defenders last season. In the third round of the NFL draft, linebacker Donald Butler (leading tackler last season) and defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (all-time career sack leader) were both chosen. Sophomore Talia Crichton is expected to anchor one defensive end spot, while junior defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu will try to stop things up the middle.
The Huskies best returning defender is senior linebacker Mason Foster, who was second on the team with 85 tackles last season. Next to him will be junior Cort Dennison who started five games in 2009. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt likes to run a 4-3, but without any other experienced linebackers returning, he's got his work cut out for him to find someone at middle linebacker to replace Butler, unless they decide to play nickel.
The nickel might be an option with three returning safeties with starting experience: sophomore Nate Fellner, sophomore Justin Glenn, and senior Nate Williams. Add in sophomore cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Adam Long, and you have the signs of a core defense that should be better in 2010.
While the Huskies were very close to being bowl eligible last season, they weren't statistically impressive on either side of the ball. Offensively, they were ranked in the 60's in points (69th at 26.1), total yards (62nd at 375.5), and rushing yards (68th at 139.0). Defensively, they weren't very good at all, though not Cosgrovian either, ranking 70th in points allowed (26.7), 79th in yards allowed (389.5) and 99th in opposing pass efficiency (139.78).
Those mediocre results should be put into perspective: they were a young squad playing a tough schedule (non-conference games were against LSU, Idaho, and Notre Dame) with a first year coach...coming off an 0-11 season. The UW Dawg Pound blog made it a point to suggest that the onus was on Nebraska's offense to score. Which is true, but let's remember that while Nebraska's offense was less than impressive (to be most kind) in averaging 25.1 points a game last season, it's not all that much different (75th nationally) than Washington (26.1 points per game, ranking 69th nationally). So much for that "huge advantage". Really, the pressure will be on Washington's offense to score against the Blackshirts, who finished last season #1 nationally allowing 10.4 points a game.
Before I started looking at the Huskies in depth, I felt this was a game Nebraska should win comfortably. Digging into the Huskies, I realize that was rather optimistic; I still think Nebraska will win this game, but considering that this game will be played in Seattle, it'll be a little closer. Husky Stadium is known to be a loud stadium (in 1992, the sideline crew measured the crowd noise at 130 decibels, the equivalent of a jet plane at 100 feet). That home field advantage might be minimized by an expected large contingent of Husker fans in Seattle; Husky Stadium didn't sell out last season, and while this game may sell out, a large crowd of Husker fans should be on hand.