December 29, 2010

Holiday Bowl Press Conference: No revenge for UW

Since the Holiday Bowl match-up was announced three weeks ago, all the talk around Nebraska was whether the Huskers would be able to get motivated for a rematch with Washington.

For the Huskies, all the talk was about how much they could play off of the "revenge factor" after their 56-21 blowout loss to NU back in September.

Just like Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and his team have insisted there would be no problems getting up for Thursday night's game, UW head coach Steve Sarkisian said Washington was solely focused on winning the game and not on simply getting back at the Huskers.

"I don't think revenge is a factor at all," Sarkisian said during the Holiday Bowl press conference on Wednesday. "Two things come to mind with that question. One is, I don't know if I have more respect for a staff than I do for Coach Pelini's staff at Nebraska. When you assess the season and you self-evaluate yourself and you look at your opponents and how you played and what happened, (Nebraska was) probably the best-coached football team we played all year.

"That being said, when you prepare for any ball game, in our eyes, our focus is about who we are and what we're about and what we can control. The revenge factor, that all sounds good probably in meetings the night before the game, but at the end of the day, if you can't stop inside zone and you can't stop power, revenge doesn't matter. Ultimately, no, that's not a real factor for us."

The general consensus between both coaches on Wednesday was the first meeting between the teams in Seattle would have little if any impact on what happens at Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night.

While he said his team has learned and grown from its embarrassing 35-point loss to the Huskers, Sarkisian said the Huskies haven't prepared any differently for Nebraska during its bowl preparations than it would against any other opponent.

"We didn't change one thing," Sarkisian said "We prepared from scratch like it was a brand new opponent. That game that we played then was part of our preparation. It wasn't more so or less so because we played them before. We did it the exact same way."

- Robin Washut

Pelini says Paul is ready to go

It's been a tough road back, but after going through practice both on Monday and Tuesday in San Diego, Pelini fully expects wide receiver Niles Paul to play in Thursday's Holiday Bowl.

Pelini wouldn't say if Paul would be returning kicks for the Huskers, but he did say he would be "available" if needed in that role as well.

"I hope he plays 60 plays," Pelini said of Paul. "We'll see."

As for Paul in general, Pelini said he's proud of the fight Paul has shown to get back so quickly from the foot injury he suffered less than 40 days ago.

"I think it just shows the kind of character Niles (Paul) has and how far he's come," Pelini said. "It just shows how passionate he is and how prideful of a guy he is. To me it just shows how special of a human being Niles Paul is, because it would be real easy for him to say 'I'm going to sit this one out,' but believe he's completely on the other end of the spectrum of that. To me it shows how important it is to him."

- Sean Callahan

Locker eager for one more shot vs. NU

As everyone already well knows, Washington senior quarterback Jake Locker had arguably his worst collegiate game in the Huskies' loss to Nebraska back in September.

However, Sarkisian said his star quarterback was able to put that forgettable performance behind him and go on to have a solid year, especially in UW's three-game winning streak to end the regular season.

"A credit to Jake, he was actually pretty beat up after that game," Sarkisian said. "Traditionally, after that heading into a bye like we were prior to the USC game, we give our starting quarterback that Monday off just to let his body rest and come back to work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Jake said 'No, I'm going. I want to play. I want to practice. I need to get better, Coach.' At the end of it he might have played his best game the very next ball game versus USC."

While Locker dealt with another setback later on in the year when he suffered a rub injury against Oregon State back on Oct. 16, Sarkisian said Locker was able to keep a positive attitude throughout the season.

Locker's leadership, Sarkisian said, was one of the biggest reasons the Huskies were able to bounce back from a 3-6 start and make their first bowl appearance since 2002.

"He's a very competitive young man," Sarkisian said. "He's extremely humble young man. Through it all, coming out of that ball game, Jake would be the first one to tell you that wasn't his best game, but we didn't play very well as a football team. That starts with me and it lends itself to the other 10 guys he plays with on every snap. But not once did he ever go say that to the media or to his teammates.

"He's a good kid. He's a good young man, and he bounced back extremely well and I would expect him to play a much better football game tomorrow night than he did three months ago."

- Robin Washut

Looking ahead

If you were to watch any of Tuesday night's Insight Bowl in Phoenix featuring Missouri and Iowa, you got a good taste of the different contrast in styles between the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences.

The Hawkeyes attacked the Tigers with a physical downhill running offense, while Mizzou tried to spread Iowa out in the passing game.

Pelini said he's yet to look at any Big Ten film yet, but he expects there to be some differences in the style of play between the two leagues.

"I'll start that probably in late January and February," Pelini said when asked when he'll start looking at Big Ten film. "I'm not very familiar (with the Big Ten teams right now). I haven't looked at any of them.

"Obviously I played against Ohio State (in 2007), but that was four years ago and that was 'pre Terrell Pryor,' and that's the last time I've really watched Big Ten film."

- Sean Callahan

NU secondary presents biggest challenge for Huskies

There wasn't a more lopsided match-up in the first Nebraska-Washington meeting than the Huskers' secondary completely dominating the Husky passing game.

All you have to do is look at Locker's numbers to know just how bad it was: 4-of-20 passing for 71 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

So it was understandable when Sarkisian said Washington would have to find a way to match the talent and physicality of NU's defensive backs if it were to have any chance at knocking off the Huskers on Thursday night.

"They're really good," Sarkisian said. "I'd like to have a couple of those guys on our team. They're excellent. I think it starts with, one, they're very well coached. Sometimes that gets missed. Technique-wise, they're extremely sound. Schematically, they're tremendous together. They do a great job of communicating together, understanding leverages and techniques.

"All of the things they do, that's where it starts, but then at the end of the day, when it's mono y mono, they're all big, physical, long guys that get their hands on receivers. For a secondary that has that many guys with that good of ball skills is very unique as well. They all catch the ball extremely well. They're playmakers, so they pose a great deal of challenges for us."

Sarkisian said having a healthy and more confident Locker was the first part in putting out a better performance in the rematch. He also said it would be up to Washington's receivers to match the aggressiveness of Nebraska's secondary and run good routes and get open for Locker to get them the ball.

"I think the start of it is schematically for us, some of the ways we tried to attack it obviously didn't work the way we thought they would the first time," Sarkisian said. "Secondly, we need to play a much more physical brand of football on the outside. We got knocked around pretty good by their corners, and I think that's something that maybe we can take from the first game, the physicality that they played. They're a big, physical group."

- Robin Washut

Stopping the run another key for UW

On the other side of the ball, Sarkisian said his defense would have to do a much better job of slowing down Nebraska's running game than it did back in September.

In the first meeting, quarterback Taylor Martinez and running backs Rex Burkhead and Roy Helu ran wild all over the Huskies, combining for 351 yards and six touchdowns in what was supposed to be their first real test of the season.

This time around, Sarkisian said the Huskies would have to be much more sound in their run defense scheme and also be the aggressors at the line of scrimmage.

"It's challenging, especially when all three of them are out there together because they've got such a variety in their run game," Sarkisian said. "Whether it's the zone read or the power play or the quarterback power plays or the Wildcat, they attack you in so many ways that the challenge is, one, you have to be physical, but your gap integrity and fitting those runs is the real challenge, and I think that's really where we got exposed the first time around.

"We didn't fit the runs very well at all, and in turn we struggled to be physical because of the sense of 'Are we right or are we wrong?' At the end of the day, we got gashed on some very big plays. So hopefully we recognize the runs sooner, fit the runs better and play with a little more confidence."

In particular, it was Martinez who caused Washington's defense the most problems. In his first road game as a college quarterback, the redshirt freshman broke out for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run to start the second half that set the tone for the rest of the game.

Needless to say, Sarkisian is well aware that the first step in slowing down the Huskers' rushing attack to containing Martinez.

"He's really fast," Sarkisian said. "He ran right in front of me to start the second half. He's a highly competitive kid. I was impressed with his competitiveness. Sometimes that's hard to gauge when you're watching film, but he plays the game with a real passion. You can tell that.

"He appears to have a high football IQ. He understood the situations of the game as they were presented to him. At the end of the day, he's an explosive guy, and again, he's really fast."

Quick hits

***In just his second year at Washington, Sarkisian was able to lead the Huskies to their first bowl appearance in eight years this season. Interestingly enough, Sarkisian said he's tried to model his program around what Pelini has done in his first three seasons at Nebraska.

"Bo's model is something we've kind of looked at and structured ourselves around in a sense," Sarkisian said. "The staff continuity, he's gone three straight years with the exact same staff. The messaging from the head coach to the coaches to the players is consistent, so there's a lot of similarities in terms of how they've done it and how we're trying to do it moving forward."

***Apparently the hot topic around Washington football the past week hasn't been so much about what the Huskies would do on the field Thursday night, but more what they would wear on it.

In the end, the final decision came in on Wednesday: Gold helmets, black jerseys and black pants.

"I though they looked sharp the first time around (against UCLA)," Sarkisian said. "The jersey is obviously a bowl gift for the seniors, and so it's something that would be kind of a neat memento on the way out. That's why we chose it."

"I thought it would be kind of fitting wearing the all black. I was actually thinking about our basketball team when they wore them in the NCAA Tournament."

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