Holiday Bowl preview: Washington-Nebraska

It certainly was not the season Jake Locker, Steve Sarkisian and the entire Washington fanbase envisioned at the start of the year. But the Huskies, still only two years removed from an 0-12 mark, righted the ship and became bowl eligible with a 35-28 last-minute win over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. Locker, despite dropping down NFL draft boards, still led the program to its first bowl game since the 2002 season. Meanwhile, Nebraska is off to the Big Ten after falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. But the Cornhuskers first hope to beat the Huskies for the second time this season when they meet Thursday night in the Holiday Bowl.

Here’s a closer look at the Huskies and Cornhuskers.

Steve SarkisianICONIt wasn't easy, but Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies bowling.

Washington (6-6, 5-4 Pac-10): If Washington hopes to avoid a repeat of the disastrous loss to Nebraska early in the season, running back Chris Polk must carry the football. He has been excellent the last three contests, averaging 169.3 rushing yards per game and leading the team to three straight wins. A productive Polk equates to wins, as he has averaged 137 yards and 6.3 yards per carry in their six wins, while the numbers dip to 69.3 yards and 4.4 yards per carry in the six losses. As much as people talk about Locker, it’s an effective Polk that is just as crucial to the team’s success.

But, boy, do the Huskies need a productive Locker in this rematch. The senior signal caller was woeful from the pocket in the first meeting with Nebraska, but a closer look at his numbers shows that he threw the football well in the pocket in 2010, as he completed over 60 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the blitz, Locker has fared well — in Huskies victories. In the six wins, he completed 63 percent of his passes with four scores and one interception against the blitz. But in that meeting against the Blackshirts, he completed just 1-of-5 passes through the air when facing pressure. He will also need to be better on third downs, as he was only 1-of-7 passing for 6 yards in the first meeting.

Nebraska (10-3, 6-2 Big 12): As we all know, two things come to mind when we think of Nebraska: Quarterback Taylor Martinez and the Blackshirts. Let’s continue with the defense, as its effort will be the biggest factor in this one.

Opponents are completing just 42.5 percent of their passes on third down against Nebraska’s pass defense, which ranks No. 1 in the nation. The Cornhuskers rank No. 2 in pass efficiency defense on third down. With Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard, it’s easy to understand why teams — with the exception of Oklahoma State’s aerial assault — have had little success.

The major question surrounding the Cornhuskers is the health of Martinez. From all indications, “T-Magic” is healthy and ready to revert back to early-season form. The dual-threat signal caller at one point in late October led the country with rushes of 20 yards or more. However, after suffering a leg injury against Missouri on Oct. 30, he was never the same player. In the last four games he played, he averaged just 32.8 yards per game and was not able to break off a big run. Unless Nick Holt’s group made some serious adjustments from their lackluster season, Martinez should find running room Thursday night.

Taylor MartinezICONTaylor Martinez should be healthy for the first time since October.

As much as his rushing skills can pace the offensive attack, along with Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead on the ground, Martinez will need to be effective through the air as well. Look for Shawn Watson to put him in position to be successful early — quick slants and screens perhaps — as the redshirt freshman is not yet ready to drop back and chuck the ball all over the field.

The skinny

Washington really did go on a nice run to end the season. They survived Locker getting banged up, and their survival mentality led to squeaking out some close victories. I can’t envision this playing out like the game in Seattle early in the year, as both teams are different groups at this point. But with a healthy “T-Magic” and the Blackshirts, I’m not sure if Locker and Co. can hang in this one for four quarters.

Odds and ends

• Nebraska leads the all-time series with Washington 4-3-1.

• The last time Washington went bowling was in 2002 when the Huskies fell to Purdue 34-24 in the Sun Bowl.

Email or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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