Coach Steve Sarkisian says Huskies have gotten more physical since a 56-21 drubbing by the Cornhuskers in September.
SAN DIEGO — Players can watch all the film and read all the scouting reports they want.
But in a sport like football, they never really know for sure what they are getting until the clock starts.
So it was when the Huskies played Nebraska on Sept. 18 in Seattle, an eventual 56-21 win by the visitors.
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In a much ballyhooed matchup of a UW receiving corps that at the time was being billed as among the best in the Pac-10 against a Nebraska secondary called by many as the best in the nation, the Cornhuskers literally knocked the Huskies off stride from the first play and never let up.
They did it with an aggressive style, Nebraska cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard — each regarded among the best in the country — manning up to UW’s receivers at the line and rarely giving the Huskies any breathing room.
It was a strategy UW anticipated but really couldn’t comprehend until the game started.
“Their corners are real physical,” UW receiver Devin Aguilar said. “Going into the first game, we didn’t think they were going to be as physical.”
They do now, and some think that knowledge could be a difference for the Huskies heading into the rematch with Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl here at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“I just think having played us once and understanding our schemes a little bit better, we are going to see a different approach,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said Monday. “Exactly what form that is going to take, I don’t know.”
Nebraska’s manhandling of the UW receivers was a big reason Washington quarterback Jake Locker went just 4-for-20 passing in the first game — the fewest completions for the Huskies in a game since 1976 — even if it didn’t get as much attention.
“We need to be more physical offensively, not just at the line of scrimmage but with our wideouts to create separation,” coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian thinks UW has gotten better at that since the Nebraska game.
“There’s no doubt we did,” he said. “I thought Jermaine (Kearse) and D’Andre (Goodwin), especially, have really become that much more physical at the line of scrimmage and have made tough catches with guys on them, which is part of the process.”
Still, the Holiday Bowl rematch will be a big challenge.
Nebraska finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in the nation in pass efficiency defense and allowed teams to complete just 49.6 percent of passes, third-best in the nation. Nebraska allowed fewer than 100 yards four times and was really only lit up twice through the air.
Once was by Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in the nation. The other was in the Big 12 title game by rival Oklahoma, a Sooners team that ranked among the best passing teams in the country.
Washington ended up throwing for just 200 yards a game, down 36 from last season, as the passing game had trouble finding a consistent rhythm. There were a few different reasons for that — the lack of a reliable tight end, injuries at the receiver spot, and Locker’s midseason rib injury among them.
That Nebraska is so strong against the pass leads many to conclude that the Huskies will likely try to run the ball more against the Cornhuskers. UW had some success running in the first game, rushing for 175 yards, including 70 yards on 10 straight rushing plays on a scoring drive in the second quarter.
And during the three-game winning streak that clinched a bowl, the Huskies turned to the run more than ever, with 119 running plays to just 71 pass attempts. Much of that came, however, against the two worst run-defense teams in the Pac-10 — UCLA and Washington State. While Nebraska isn’t as good against the run, it’s not bad, allowing just 144 yards and 3.8 yards per attempt.
So the Huskies will have to make some headway through the air to have a chance.
Pelini noted that UW’s offense had changed a bit since the first game, not just in the way the Huskies have emphasized the running game but also in how it has run, which also has helped its passing attack.
“They are running a lot of misdirections in their run game, and that lends itself to a lot of good play-action possibilities,” Pelini said.
And a great unknown is always how the game will be officiated. The 6-1, 205-pound Amukamara acknowledged Monday that the Huskers like to play as physically as is allowed.
“We try to get hands on receivers and try to frustrate them as much as possible,” said Amukamara, who is generally regarded as a potential top-10 pick in this spring’s NFL draft. “We get our hands in there until the refs say we are doing something wrong. And then if they don’t say we are doing something wrong or they don’t warn us, we keep doing what we are doing.”
The Huskies say the way to combat that is to be just as physical.
“They are going to come up and in your face, and they play aggressive,” UW offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “We just have to do a great job at the line of scrimmage of getting releases.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org