Coach's Corner

Because Thursday is game day for the Washington Huskies, Christmas was actually Monday of game week. They will practice at least three times through the weekend in San Diego and repeat last Monday's practice again Tuesday and do a walk-through on Wednesday. Got it? It has to do with keeping your team in a routine.

It's how they prepare every week, only this time - like they did against USC - they have two full weeks of preparation.

Interesting isn't it that their great USC win followed their devastating September loss to the Cornhuskers of Nebraska? As a team, they had gotten off the deck after being flattened, and fought the Trojans right down to the wire to win it by one. It was largely due to the system change in the program and how they think about winning. They believed they could do it and had two weeks to prepare within their system. The result? They won a key game.

Coach Sarkisian is again choosing to stay with his regular weekly routine, so expect Monday's practice to feature a complete kicking game review, as well a thorough situational and personnel review of schemes to be used in all three phases of the game. That is usually what happens two days before a game, meaning they already have most of their game plan installed, and that's what they did last week in Seattle.

This would also mean they will be using most of this last week to refine and further develop their approach. They have also gotten some extra practice time and periods specifically designed for the younger kids in the program. This in itself has already made the bowl experience beneficial from the squad development standpoint.

I figure it's also my job to point out the blatantly obvious; they expect to beat Nebraska. They've worked with that attitude and they have some plans in store. It doesn't really make any difference to them that no one expects them to win besides themselves. They know they are a better team now and are excited about the opportunity to show that to not only Nebraska, but the nation as well. And if the early returns from San Diego are any indication, the Huskies are ready.

"In my opinion that was as spirited of a practice as we've had all year," Sarkisian told the media Sunday. "I think they did a nice job of focusing on the task at hand when we've had to focus on football and when we've had a nice chance to spend some time together, they've been able to relax and do that as well."

You have to believe in yourself and you have to believe in your system. That is exactly what coach Sarkisian is doing to prepare his team for their first bowl game since 2002. He has kept them on their regular routine. They know what to expect and they, too, also believe in their system. It has taken them from 0-12 to six wins in only two years, and now they have a chance to make a major statement about just how far they have come back by beating a ranked Nebraska team.

Besides the opportunity to redeem themselves, the team is also looking forward to taking in the whole experience of a bowl game. I talked with a number of senior players about going to Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and a trip on an aircraft carrier, all activities that are usually included in the Holiday Bowl. They are looking forward to everything, but most of all to winning the game.

Bowls are a wonderful mix of work and play and by sticking with routine the players already know what is expected of them work-wise and once the work is over, each day will feature some sort of recreational activity. Every bowl is different but usually reflects the culture of that particular host community. The San Diego organizers have always worked hard to promote their city and are still expecting a really good crowd even though these teams have already played each other earlier this season.

"You never completely turn off the game, but you have your moments where you can focus on other things," Sarkisian said.

So, how do the Huskies expect pull this off and go from a 35-point deficit back in September to one that is say, 24-23, in their favor in a few days? Why 24? Well simply put, I think Washington has three great playmakers in Jake Locker, Chris Polk, and Jermaine Kearse. I think each one of them is good for at least one touchdown. If Locker can throw for one touchdown and run for another one and Polk scores one and Kearse catches that touchdown pass, that sets up Erik Folk for a made field goal in the final minute to make it 24 points for UW.

Defensively, Washington has to take the big plays off the board by not allowing any long touchdowns. They have to limit Nebraska to two long touchdown drives and three field goals by their All-American kicker, Alex Henery. That will be their 23.

Would you take that? I know this; if their field goal kicker is kicking at least three times, that means the Husky defense is getting stops. By staying disciplined and always accounting for the quarterback on all plays, the Huskies would go a long way toward bottling up the Cornhusker offense. They have to take Taylor Martinez out of the rushing game by limiting him to 40-50 yards, instead of 137 yards like he did last time. It's a tall order, because Martinez cut the Huskies up. If they can hold Nebraska to under 200 total net yards rushing and get three turnovers - three fumbles or two fumbles and an interception would do - that's my formula for this game. I'm sticking with it.

The three teams who beat Nebraska this year essentially did just that: Texas A&M won a battle of field goals 9-6; an unusually weak Texas team beat the Cornhuskers 20-13 in the sixth game of the season by doing the same thing. Texas got ahead in that one and held on to win by making Nebraska drive the whole field and kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.

Then in their league championship game with Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers jumped to a 17-point lead after just a little over one quarter of play, only to be held scoreless in the second half, with the field goal kicker from Oklahoma winning the game. This time it will be Erik Folk winning the game. The Sooners held Nebraska to 145 net yards rushing and forced the Cornhuskers to throw to win, and that was something they just couldn't do.

In that game, the Sooners put up 454 total yards of offense, including 342 through the air. Now obviously Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma all have some really good players, but so does Washington. And this time they will have their middle linebacker, Cort Dennison, who missed the first encounter with an injury. Cort is a major communicator on the Husky defense and not having him the first time really hurt them in stopping the run.

I re-watched the Nebraska-Washington game, then looked at the three Cornhusker losses. I also took a look at their games against Iowa State and Missouri. Both of those teams gave Nebraska fits, with Iowa State losing by one in double overtime. Missouri fell behind early, and a late rally still left them two scores short.

That's what this game will get down to - the Huskies will need to keep contact by answering Nebraska at every turn, or by simply jumping to the lead themselves. Then they have to make Nebraska use the long field, because sooner or later they will turn the ball over, as they did with 42 fumbles (losing 15) this past season to go along with seven interceptions.

If Jake Locker doesn't throw any picks, that will also really help because Nebraska lives on interceptions, coming up with 19 this past season. Of course, I'm also assuming the Huskies can be solid in the kicking game by not giving up any long returns or blocks and by simply not missing any kicks. Erik Folk wins this game because I think it will go right down to who has the ball last, and that will be Washington.

The most interesting fact in researching this game is that the Cornhuskers were once called the "Bugeaters" before changing their name in 1900. Of course, they were also known as the Old Gold Knights and the Antelopes, but the Bugeaters might rank as one of the most all-time ridiculous nicknames ever. I hope they play like "bugeaters" in the Holiday Bowl and the Huskies win a close one.

Happy Holidays - especially if I'm right and the Huskies win.

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