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Originally published September 11, 2010 at 8:16 PM | Page modified September 12, 2010 at 4:34 PM

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Huskies weren't perfect, but they were better | Steve Kelley

But at the end of a late, lovely summer afternoon, after Washington had beaten Syracuse 41-20, it looked as if the Huskies were getting their groove back.

Times staff columnist

At times they were very good and at other times the Huskies were very ordinary. They were ugly at times and beautiful at others.

Sometimes on Saturday against Syracuse, Washington was exactly the team this state had hoped all summer it would become, and at other times it was the mistake-prone team this state has seen too much of for too many seasons.

Washington played in fits and starts in its Saturday home opener, alternately looking very sharp and sort of dull.

But at the end of a late, lovely summer afternoon, after Washington had beaten Syracuse 41-20, it looked as if the Huskies were getting their groove back.

This team only is going to go as far as quarterback Jake Locker takes it and Saturday, especially in the second half, he took it up and down the field, over and over again.

Late in the game, he looked exactly like the Jake Locker of last December against California when he punished Syracuse with perfect strikes on consecutive plays — first to Jermaine Kearse and then to Devin Aguilar on a two-play, 44-yard, combination punch of a drive.

This was Locker at his best, listening to the clock in his head, sensing the Syracuse rush, stepping up in the pocket and delivering the ball on target.

Locker completed 22 of 33 passes for 289 yards and four touchdowns. Kearse caught nine balls for 179 yards and had the first three-touchdown day of his career. And Aguilar caught seven passes for 81 yards and a touchdown.

Maybe this only was Syracuse, a bottom-rung Big East team, but the importance of this game, with Nebraska and USC lurking in the next three weeks, can't be over-stated.

After losing lethargically to BYU a week earlier, this was show-me Saturday for Washington. Blow this game and the Huskies' promising season could have flat-lined.

Still, winning wasn't enough. Washington had to make plays on defense and quarterback Locker had to give Washington greatness that can be carried over in practice next week and can be returned to Husky Stadium next week against Nebraska.

This win hardly was perfect. More special-teams mistakes (a theme left over from the loss at BYU) spotted Syracuse a 10-0 first-quarter lead. And Washington still was just inconsistent enough to leave too many questions unanswered.

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But the Huskies played with swagger, and the crowd of 62,418 responded loudly. All of the promise of this season, the hope for a bowl appearance, returned. A team that had trouble finishing at times last season scored 28 second-half points.

After looking flat in its loss at BYU, Washington found some offensive efficiency and some defensive tenacity.

The offense played with a faster tempo. There was a rhythm to the play calling. There was more confidence in the execution.

Running back Chris Polk broke loose down his sideline for a 52-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and finished the game with 117 rushing yards.

Mason Foster, Washington's do-everything, go-everywhere linebacker, harassed Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib all day. And his linebacking partner, Cort Dennison, seemed to make every tackle Foster didn't make. They combined for 22 tackles.

Washington was very good at parts of the game where good teams have to be good.

The Huskies were good on third downs, converting on 9 of 18.

Locker found Aguilar for 13 yards on third-and-11; he hit Kearse for 16 yards on third-and-six; and he stood in the pocket waiting for Kearse to clear on a crossing route, took a wicked hit and found Kearse for 10 yards on a third-and-eight.

Washington was good on defense when Victor Aiyewa and Desmond Trufant combined on an early third-quarter sack. And the Huskies were especially good on third downs, where the Orange converted on only 5 of 16.

Washington should be a bowl team this season. It has the explosiveness to covert big plays.

The Huskies have the ability to score fast. They have a bounty of playmaking talent that can put pressure on the defense and make every down feel dangerous.

These Huskies have the kind of exotic weapons they haven't had since their last bowl team in 2002.

They can beat you through the air any number of ways and they can beat you up on the ground with Polk's punishing runs and Jesse Callier's change-of-pace speed.

They weren't perfect in their home opener. But they were much better and, for now, better is good enough.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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