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Originally published September 17, 2010 at 5:01 PM | Page modified September 18, 2010 at 4:03 PM

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Nebraska presents great opportunity for Huskies

A victory over No. 8 Nebraska could put Huskies, and Jake Locker, back in the national spotlight.

Seattle Times staff reporter

SATURDAY

Nebraska @ Washington, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 4

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Nebraska brings along not only its famed Sea of Red to Husky Stadium on Saturday, but also an ocean of opportunity for the Washington Huskies.

The Cornhuskers are one of the most storied programs in college football, avidly supported by a fan base that could include 20,000 or so at Husky Stadium for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff.

And after a few uncharacteristically down seasons, the Cornhuskers are again considered among the nation's elite, rated No. 8 and boasting a standout defense and an explosive offense.

The Huskies, meanwhile, are still in rebuilding mode in the second year for coach Steve Sarkisian. And while he has steadfastly maintained "it's not going to take us very long," a Week 1 loss at Brigham Young caused concern the team might be further away than thought.

A victory Saturday, though, could be the proverbial tipping point to wipe out those doubts, signal UW's return to elite status and maybe even revive the Heisman Trophy hopes of quarterback Jake Locker, which dimmed considerably after the defeat in Provo.

Sarkisian said early in the week he wasn't too worried about how the game might impact the big picture. But its potential importance isn't missed by some who have been around the program awhile.

"If we could bring them down in the big house, it would be a huge thing for this program," said senior defensive tackle Cameron Elisara. "We've raised people's expectations for the team and so people, they wouldn't see it as much of an upset as it would be more like, 'We're finally there.' People expect us to be at that higher tier by this point, so this is one of those things we have to accomplish in order to get to the goals we've set for ourselves."

Nationally, the spotlight will be on Locker, regarded as one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country but one who needs a signature moment to realistically contend for awards such as the Heisman.

ESPN national college football writer Bruce Feldman said on ESPN 710 Seattle on Friday that a victory Saturday "would make Jake Locker a Heisman candidate again."

But while a good game from Locker is undoubtedly important for the Huskies, the real key to victory probably rests up front.

The Huskies struggled in the Brigham Young game to win the short-yardage battles, a big reason they were shut out in the second half at Provo.

Washington coaches and players have compared Nebraska's offense to that of Oregon in how it uses zone-read option plays that allow quarterback Taylor Martinez to get out and run.

"They are real, real athletic," Elisara said of Nebraska's offensive line. "They remind me of a hybrid of BYU and Oregon formation-wise and speed-wise. They like to spread it out, but then they'll narrow it back down (and run power running plays). They do a good job of keeping you guessing."

Martinez is a redshirt freshman making his first road start and the Huskies will try to keep him in the pocket and force him to throw, an area of his game that is not quite as advanced. He also has been prone to sloppiness, fumbling four times last week (losing one). UW coaches are hoping a loud crowd could unnerve him, something Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini downplayed this week, saying he doesn't "anticipate it (crowd noise) being an issue."

Nebraska was led defensively last year by tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 choice in the 2010 draft. But many observers predict little if any drop-off with the Cornhuskers still featuring a talented line led by junior tackle Jared Crick and a secondary some call the best in the nation, led by cornerback Prince Amukamara. Nebraska hasn't allowed more than 20 points in any of its past 10 games, the longest streak in the nation.

Locker, who has 41 rushing yards on 16 carries in two games, might run the ball more this week.

Elisara, anticipating the atmosphere Saturday, said "I couldn't wait to see how nuts the fans would go (if UW wins). I couldn't wait to see what the stadium would be like. It would be a great jump-start to the season."

And maybe a lot more.

NOTE

• Sarkisian didn't have much nice to say about the latest exploits of Reggie Bush, who he coached at USC. Bush recently returned his Heisman Trophy he was awarded in 2005. "He had a chance to apologize, look like the good guy," Sarkisian told ESPN. "But in giving it back and not apologizing, he just looks like an idiot again."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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