By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — After spending a good part of the season’s first half talking about lessening the load on running back Chris Polk, the University of Washington football team appears to have overcorrected the problem.
The Huskies’ run game, outside of quarterback Jake Locker, has been stuck in neutral in recent weeks. Early deficits, a banged-up offensive line and a minor shoulder injury that kept Polk out of part of the Arizona game have all contributed to the UW’s grounded ground game.
Over the past two games, the UW has rushed for 215 total yards, much of which came on Locker’s 56-yard touchdown run. After rushing for 136 yards on 22 carries against Notre Dame, Polk has just 85 on 21 carries in the past two games combined.
“We’ve had some moving parts up front,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said, referring to a season-ending injury to guard Greg Christine and some shuffling at the other guard spot. “I think we can execute better and run better. Obviously, we can be a little more efficient.”
The Huskies (3-4 overall, 2-2 Pacific-10 Conference) have dropped to eighth in the conference and 95th in the country in rushing yards per game (117.7). The UW’s yards-per-carry average of 3.7 also ranks eighth in Pac-10.
“I feel like we can be better,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said about the Huskies’ running attack. “I know we can be better.”
Sarkisian then pointed out that the UW has faced some of the best defenses in the Pac-10 already and that his offense will keep plugging away because he doesn’t want the UW offense to be one-dimensional. The Huskies have played against three of the conference’s top four run defenses in Arizona State, USC and Arizona
Locker has been Washington’s main offensive threat in recent weeks. He has thrown 61 passes and run the ball 19 times in back-to-back games against Arizona and ASU, while Polk has just 21 carries in that span. Polk averaged just under 20 carries per game the first five weeks.
Polk said Tuesday that he isn’t interested in complaining about his number of carries. When asked whether he is feeling worn down from the first five games, Polk shrugged off the notion.
“I’m sore, but this is exactly what we train for in the offseason,” he said. “This is why we train and lift weights. It’s my job to take hits.”
Nussmeier said that Polk does not appear to be slowing down, despite the constant hits the redshirt freshman took early on this season. As proof, the assistant coach pointed toward a 23-yard touchdown run in the second half of the ASU game.
“That was a heck of a run,” Nussmeier said of a scamper that saw Polk spin off would-be tackler Vontaze Burfict at the 20-yard line. “That’s a big-time run, now.”
Outside of that touchdown run, Polk has averaged 3.1 yards per carry in the past two games.
“I think (defenses) are starting to key on it more, to put more guys in the box,” said Polk, who ranks sixth in the Pac-10 with 537 rushing yards this season. “That’s making it harder to run. But we’re able to pass.
“As long as we’re able to win, I’m happy with whatever we’re doing.”
Nussmeier said that the key moving forward is to force-feed the ground game to keep defenses off balance.
“Part of being a good running team is to stay with the run, no matter what’s happening,” he said. “That’s the hard part about football: a lot of times you’re not getting big runs, but you’ve got to be consistent and continue to hammer it.”
The Huskies are vowing to keep hammering away in hopes that the early success returns to UW’s ground game.
“It’s challenging,” Sarkisian said, “and we are not going to give up on it.”
Speaking for the first time since Saturday’s loss to Arizona State, freshman receiver James Johnson said he was surprised when Sun Devils linebacker Vontaze Burfict hit him with an forearm well after the conclusion of Polk’s touchdown run. “He’s going to be a good player, but he’s got a temper on him,” Johnson said of Burfict, who was called for three personal-foul penalties in the game but was not flagged on the forearm because no officials saw it. “He plays with a lot of confidence. He does a lot of things that can put his team in bad situations. He hit me with an elbow in his face, and I didn’t say anything to him. He just put one up there.” … Running back Curtis Shaw and wide receiver Anthony Boyles did not practice Tuesday because they’re sick. Defensive tackle Cameron Elisara (neck stinger) and wide receiver Jordan Polk (knee) continue to sit out with injuries. … After the second team saw most of the snaps on Monday, quarterback Jake Locker and the No. 1 offense were back to getting the majority of work at Tuesday’s practice. … Freshman Nate Fellner has seen most of the snaps as the starting free safefty this week, while Victor Aiyewa has been working with the second unit. … One day after saying quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was “day-to-day” with a knee injury, Oregon coach Chip Kelly said his starter had another good day at practice. “He’s more dayer-to-dayer today,” said Kelly, who doesn’t typically like to talk about injuries. If Masoli can’t start Saturday, Nate Costa would probably get the nod.