By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — One of the biggest storylines of the University of Washington football team’s 2010 regular season was the improvement of the Huskies’ defense over the past three weeks.
Now comes the time to really prove it.
The Huskies found out Sunday that they’ll get a rematch with Nebraska in the Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl in San Diego. After the Cornhuskers piled up 533 yards of offense in a 56-21 win over UW in September, the Huskies are eager to get another shot.
“They came in here and they whipped us up pretty good,” safety Nate Williams said. “All of our guys will probably be playing with a big chip on their shoulder. It’ll be our chance to get a little revenge.”
After winning three consecutive games to extend their season, the Huskies (6-6) found out Sunday night that they’ll revisit it. The Cornhuskers (10-3) had more total yardage and points than any other team UW faced all season.
Since that game, the Huskies allowed five more opponents to put up 400 or more yards against them — and yet UW’s last three games saw the defense allow just 284.7 yards per outing.
“The big difference from Week 3 and where we’re at now is just the natural maturity throughout the whole team,” Williams said. “It was getting the reps against the USCs and the Oregons, seeing the different offenses. Naturally, you’re more comfortable out there.
“We’ll be all right on the 30th. I’m excited about it.”
This will mark the first time since 2002 that the Huskies will play a bowl game. The last time UW won a postseason game was on Jan. 1, 2001, when the Huskies beat Drew Brees and the Purdue Boilermakers 34-24 in the Rose Bowl.
“Two years ago, we didn’t win a single game, and now we’re finally playing the postseason,” said Williams, a senior from Renton. “That’s one of the goals we’ve had ever since I came here. Just to accomplish that is really exciting, to see the hard work finally paying off.”
The Huskies are just happy to be back in the postseason, so there didn’t seem to be any sourness over the team being overlooked by officials from the Alamo Bowl on Sunday. That bowl, which is played in San Antonio, chose an Arizona team that finished below UW in the Pac-10 standings. The Wildcats (7-5 overall, 4-5 in the Pac-10) will face Oklahoma State on Dec. 29.
Getting to go to San Diego in December helps make up for any perceived slight for the Huskies. Thirty-four players on the UW roster are from Southern California.
There is also the natural allure of the city.
“To go to San Diego, some of the things we could do are SeaWorld and the zoo,” junior linebacker Cort Dennison said after Saturday night’s 35-28 win over Washington State, before the official announcement came. “And just being able to spend Christmas with the people you work so hard all year long with, it’s a great feeling.”
But this trip is mainly about football. And the Huskies are motivated to get back at the Cornhuskers.
“Whenever you let a team come into your house and out-hit you and out-hustle you, it really makes you upset,” Williams said. “It just hits you in a spot you can’t really explain to anybody.”
Nebraska had three different runners go over the 100-yard mark in the Sept. 18 meeting, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez’s 137 yards and three rushing touchdowns.
UW’s defenders aren’t the only players looking to atone for the Nebraska loss. Quarterback Jake Locker had one of the worst performances of his career that day, completing just 4 of 20 passes for 71 yards and two interceptions. The game played a huge role in Locker falling from the top of most NFL draft boards to the middle and back end of the first round.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for us — individually, and as a football team — to go out and perform better and improve on what we did in the last game,” Locker said Sunday night. “I don’t believe it’s who we were as a football team, or as players. So it’s an opportunity to go out and compete against a very good football team again.”
Locker is one of several players who, on the health front, still have a lot of room for improvement between now and Dec. 30. The Huskies will get most of this week off from practice, and Locker won’t take another hit for three-and-a-half weeks, so the quarterback’s broken rib has time to heal.
Left tackle Senio Kelemete is also looking forward to the time off. He played Saturday’s Apple Cup game on a severely sprained ankle and could use a few days of rest.
“It’s going to be a huge thing for me to get a lot of treatment, rehab, working on my ankle and getting the strength back into it again,” Kelemete said. “That week off will help a lot of guys who are nicked up, bruised.”
And then, the Huskies get their chance to show how much they’ve improved on the field.
“I like it,” Kelemete said of the rematch with Nebraska. “We get a second chance to go out there and try to redeem ourselves, to prove that we got a lot better since we played them last. I like that we play Nebraska again.
“… They’re a good team, and it’s going to be a great game. It’s a second opportunity to show the world we’ve changed a lot.”