Washington's receivers had trouble getting open against Nebraska's physical secondary in two games last season.
For all that changed from last September to December — when the Huskies went from 56-21 losers against Nebraska to 19-7 victors over the Cornhuskers — one thing didn’t.
Even during that heady night in San Diego when UW turned the tables on Nebraska to win the Holiday Bowl, the Cornhuskers’ cornerbacks had their way with Washington’s receivers.
Washington completed just 6 of 19 passes in the bowl game, one a 16-yard halfback pass from Jesse Callier to quarterback Jake Locker. Only three passes went to wide receivers. That game mirrored the September contest when Nebraska held UW to just 4-of-20 passing for 71 yards, the Cornhuskers giving new meaning to the term “blanket coverage” as Nebraska’s cornerbacks crowded the line of scrimmage and often bullied Washington’s receivers out of their routes.
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“They were pretty much the best secondary that we faced last year,” said senior Devin Aguilar, who had one catch for 10 yards in the two games. “Real physical.”
Jermaine Kearse, who had three catches for 55 yards in the two games (and one for 4 yards in the Holiday Bowl) expects more of the same when the teams face off for the third time in less than a year Saturday in Lincoln.
“It worked for them, so why would they change?” Kearse asked.
Washington, though, will hope the third time is a charm, resting its optimism on improvement by its receivers and changes in Nebraska’s secondary.
Three of Nebraska’s four regular starters in the secondary are gone, and the lone returner — cornerback Alfonzo Dennard — has yet to play due to a leg injury. He is questionable, at best, for Saturday’s game.
Most notable of the losses is All-American cornerback Prince Amukamara, a 6-foot-1, 205-pounder who was taken in the first round of the draft by the Giants. In his place is 5-11, 185-pound sophomore Ciante Evans.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian’s daily reminder this week that each team is different might apply best to Nebraska’s remade secondary, which has allowed its first two opponents — Fresno State and Chattanooga — to complete 54.5 percent of their passes for an average of 212 yards per game.
But Washington offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier says Nebraska is still “really, really talented” in the back end, and the focus is more on having Washington’s receivers get better than worrying about who might be there for the Cornhuskers.
Sarkisian said the Huskies are “much improved from where we were last year to where we are now” in terms of beating physical, press coverage. “It’s been a big point of emphasis for us this offseason and all the way into training camp and again into this week.”
For one, guys like Kearse and Aguilar are each now seniors and a little bigger and stronger. Kearse weighs about 10 pounds more than a year ago.
And they also spent the offseason working on getting off press coverage against UW cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson, among others.
Aguilar also says the Huskies receivers have to go into the game with a take-no-prisoners mindset.
“They are taught to be physical,” he said of Nebraska’s corners. “But we have to be the same way back and just come in with a good game plan and be aggressive and have a chip on our shoulder so we can equal their strength and the surprises that pop up.”
And as was evidenced last week against Hawaii, UW also simply has more options at receiver than a year ago, players who might work especially well against physical coverage, receivers such as James Johnson, Kevin Smith and Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
• The Huskies left for Lincoln on Thursday afternoon after a short practice at UW.
• Washington’s depth at safety will be taxed Saturday as starting free safety Nate Fellner is out with a hamstring injury and one of his replacements, Taz Stevenson, is questionable after reinjuring a knee in practice Wednesday.
Fellner was hurt late in the Hawaii game and replaced by junior Justin Glenn, who will take over against the Cornhuskers.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org