SEATTLE — Winners compare themselves to champions.
By that measure, the Washington Huskies are an improving football team, but the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday buried any notion that the Dawgs are even close to rejoining the ranks of the college football elite.
They also ended, once and for all, any faint Heisman Trophy hopes for Jake Locker.
The game was a litmus test for both teams. Nebraska is trying to climb back into the upper echelons of college football. They came to Montlake Saturday 2-0, having beaten patsies Western Kentucky and Idaho at home but struggling for portions of both games.
The Huskies had entered the season optimistic that they would build off the late-season successes of last year. A win -— or at least a credible performance — against Nebraska would have proved that coach Steve Sarkisian had rebuilt the team following the 0-12 debacle of 2008.
From the very start, the Cornhuskers were superior in every way. They scored with lightning speed, scoring two touchdowns on big plays less than 5 into the game, and twice again to open the second half. They also pounded out a touchdown drive at the end of the half without throwing a single pass.
By the late third quarter, the Huskers had punted just three times.
Meanwhile, the Huskers' defense bottled up the Husky offense. Locker threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. He was only 4-of-20 passing for 71 yards. Most of that came on a 45-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse, which capped a two-play, 78-yard drive.
The Huskies mustered only one sustained offensive effort, an 80-yard touchdown drive that took place almost exclusively on the ground.
Except for a play or two, including the TD scramble that ended that long drive, Locker was a quarterback ordinaire. He made a number of bad decisions and was completely outplayed by Nebraska freshman Taylor Martinez. Martinez threw only 11 times, completing seven, but he was a Houdini with the football and didn't get rattled by the Husky Stadium din.
But the Huskies really lost this game on defense. The defense gave up too many big plays and didn't make enough of its own. It did made some key plays Saturday, forcing a fumble that set up the Dawgs' second touchdown. And it sacked Martinez several times.
But the guys in purple failed at some critical moments: With the Dawgs trailing 21-14 late in the first half, they allowed Martinez to complete a pass on third and 16 for a first down. Had Washington snuffed that drive, which later ended in a touchdown, it may have been a different game. The ‘D' failed on almost every must-stop situation.
So is Nebraska really good, or are the Huskies really bad?
A little of both, probably.
The Cornhuskers had something to prove, and they came away with a convincing win that should get national attention. They have incredible team speed that makes them difficult to run around and throw against. The Dawgs' only consistent success came running up the gut. Nebraska has an obviously potent offense that will only improve as Martinez, the first freshman to ever start at QB for Nebraska, gets better.
The 2010 Huskies are a vast improvement over the '08 team. They could have thrown in the towel early after falling behind so quickly, as they typically did in '08. That team had no resiliency.
This team, at least for one half on Saturday, gave the eighth-ranked team in the nation a dogfight - until the wheels came off following halftime.
Statistically, though, UW fared no better against Nebraska than did the Cornhuskers' two previous opponents, two weaklings. The final score was worse. Clearly, the Huskies are a long way from becoming a powerhouse that will compete for a Pac-10 championship.
As for Locker, he may have been booed off the field had he been an NFL quarterback. One should start wondering about Sarkisian's decision to make him a traditional drop-back, pocket QB. The Huskies two-play, 78-yard touchdown drive early in the third quarter was the result of a Locker planned run and a rollout that froze the Nebraska secondary and freed up Kearse. Locker is among the best athletes on the field; limiting him as a runner, taking a dimension away from him, seems to make little sense. It's like asking Babe Ruth to be a singles hitter.
Clearly, Locker will have to play better if Washington is going to be bowl eligible.