By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — A couple hours before the University of Washington football team took the practice field to begin its final few days of preparation for the 2010 season opener, quarterback Jake Locker was making a public vow Monday afternoon.
The Huskies’ star senior wasn’t talking Rose Bowls or Heisman Trophies or even a Saturday victory over Brigham Young University.
All Locker was promising was that this time, his only celebrating will be in the form of a hand-off.
“I’ll take the ball to the referee this Saturday for sure,” he said of what celebration he has planned should the Huskies score a game-altering touchdown in the closing seconds.
It was Locker, fans may remember, who cost UW a victory in the second game of the 2008 season, thereby sending the Huskies into a freefall that mercifully ended at 0-12 and resulted in the firing of then-coach Tyrone Willingham. After scoring on a 3-yard scramble to pull UW within one point with two seconds remaining in a game against BYU, Locker threw the ball in the air in celebration. The typically mild-mannered quarterback was flagged for a 15-yard, unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that was assessed on the extra point. The kick was blocked, securing a 28-27 BYU victory, and now the two teams will meet again.
While the Huskies haven’t forgotten, they’re certainly not looking at that game as a motivating factor for Saturday.
“It’s in the past,” senior linebacker Mason Foster said, “and we’re looking forward to this season.”
Little did the Huskies know that Locker’s rare outburst would cost them what could have proven to be the only victory of an otherwise historically bad 2008 season. But when Locker and the Huskies get another shot at BYU this Saturday in Provo, Utah, it will be an entirely different UW team taking the field.
Experienced, confident and carrying the kind of expectations this program hasn’t seen in a long time, the Huskies are eager to debut their 2010 team after months of talk.
Even energetic head coach Steve Sarkisian seemed somewhat loose during his Monday press conference that opened the practice week, carrying a confidence that comes with high expectations.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I think our football team’s excited. It’s been a long time coming. We’re anxious to get into it.”
The Huskies would seem to have every reason for excitement. Eighteen of the 22 players projected to start Saturday’s game — nine on either side of the ball — could be considered returning starters from last season. And two others have starting experience as well — senior wide receiver D’Andre Goodwin was the leading receiver from the 2008 team, and senior linebacker Victor Aiyewa, who started two games at safety last fall.
But early obstacles can derail a team, no matter its expectations, and so the 2008 loss to BYU can serve as a reminder that Murphy’s Law shows no favoritism.
“It was a tough game, a tough loss for us — a game that, in my opinion, if it would have gone a little differently, might have given us a different outcome that year,” said Locker, who suffered a season-ending injury two weeks later and had to watch most of the 0-12 season from the sideline. “It’s a tough one to look back to and remember the way we lost that one. It’s one of those ones that sticks with you for a while.”
Locker said he hasn’t dwelled much on that game but still seemed a little shell-shocked when asked about it Monday.
“I told (teammates) after the game: ‘I’m sorry that we were put in that situation and we lost the game because of it, but I’m not sorry for what I did because I was enjoying the game,’” Locker said Monday. “I was having fun. I wasn’t trying to embarrass BYU at that point. I had scored a touchdown that had the potential to tie the game with no time left on the clock, and to me that’s pretty exciting. And I celebrated with my teammates.”
Two years removed, several UW teammates were more frank in their assessment of the call Monday.
“It’s unfortunate that the referee made a call that impacted the game like that, a silly little celebration on a big play,” said Foster, one of several current Huskies who also played in the 2008 game. “That’s something that happens in college football. Everybody celebrates.”
Senior defensive tackle Cameron Elisara said he didn’t even know why the penalty was called until after the game.
Asked Monday whether he understands the penalty now, he rocked his head and said: “I know they’re trying to be really stringent on the excessive celebration, but I don’t know.”
As the Huskies took the field for Monday’s afternoon practice, thoughts of the last BYU game were all but chased from their memories. This year’s Huskies certainly know that it’s a new season, and with that comes a wealth of possibilities.
“We’re extremely eager,” junior linebacker Cort Dennison said Monday. “This is what we’ve been working for. All the offseason workouts, this is where it all pays off.
“We’re extremely excited, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do this week. We’re eager, and we’re ready to get things started.”