By Scott M. Johnson
SEATTLE — Jake Locker couldn’t handle this opponent like a blitzing linebacker. There was no more stepping aside, getting out in space and letting his athleticism carry him to an open patch of turf.
When the University of Washington senior quarterback was told Sunday that a rib injury would keep him out of at least one game — this Saturday at Oregon — all he could do was take the proverbial knee.
“It’s frustrating anytime you’re not able to be out on the field with your guys,” Locker said Monday, when the school announced that an MRI revealed a cracked rib. “It’s the best thing for me and my health.”
Locker’s senior season took another bad turn this week when a rib injury that was diagnosed as torn cartilage after the Oct. 16 Oregon State game, and as a small fracture a week later, was found to be a cracked bone. Locker did not know precisely when he suffered the more extensive injury, just that the pain got worse in the early stages of Saturday’s loss to Stanford.
The injury will definitely keep Locker out of Saturday’s game at Oregon, but the team is holding out hope that he’ll be healthy enough to return after the bye week and start against UCLA on Nov. 18.
“The goal is to have him back healthy for our final three ballgames, as we go toward the home stretch there versus UCLA, Cal and Washington State,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian admitted that he kept the nature of Locker’s rib injury under wraps last week, when he flatly answered “no” when asked whether the quarterback’s ribs were broken. Team doctors had already discovered a hairline fracture, but, after consulting with Locker’s family, he was cleared to play against Stanford.
Locker played the entire game Saturday despite suffering a more deep fracture early in the game.
“He’s an absolute stud,” Sarkisian said. “ … That is what makes him so special. It’s not about always the completions, or the touchdowns or the interceptions — it’s about the heart. He embodies a huge heart. I think that is why I love coaching him, and I think that’s why his teammates love playing with him.”
Locker was in good spirits after the game, when he addressed the media and shrugged off his health status by saying he was “a little sore.”
On Monday, Locker showed no visible sign of pain or disappointment, even though he was obviously feeling both.
Even when asked whether the injuries were to blame for his poor play this season, Locker took the high road.
“It didn’t have anything to do with my play,” he said flatly.
It was Locker, of course, who turned down guaranteed millions from the NFL to come back for his senior year. So far that’s gotten him two of the worst performances of his career (Saturday night and the Sept. 18 loss to Nebraska), the serious possibility of another bowl-less season, and now this.
“It’s not how you would have wanted to draw it up,” Locker said Monday. “But I said at the time of my decision (to return to school), and I’ll stick to it now: I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t do it any different. We still have a lot to play for in this season.”
There are no guarantees that Locker will be back after one game, although Sarkisian is optimistic. The coach has been off on his target dates for several injured players’ returns this season and, as last week’s description of the Locker injury showed, Sarkisian hasn’t always been forthcoming when it comes to the severity of injuries.
“(Locker) took a couple pretty good shots (in the Stanford game) that kind of escalated this thing to a whole other level for us,” Sarkisian said Monday. “It’s unfortunate. I know Jake wants to be out there in the worst way, but this is the right thing to do.”
The injury leaves UW in the hands of a relatively untested quarterback while playing against the most formidable opponent of the season. Price has yet to start a game, although his most meaningful action of the season came early in the fourth quarter of an Oct. win over USC — and he threw the go-ahead touchdown pass on his only official attempt of the game.
“It’ll be a great challenge for him,” Sarkisian said of Price starting against the No. 1 team in the country Saturday afternoon, “and a great challenge for us.”
The backup will be Nick Montana, a true freshman whom the Huskies are hoping to redshirt this season. Sarkisian admitted that UW could turn to wide receiver Cody Bruns or running back Jesse Callier at quarterback, in a pinch, rather than burn Montana’s redshirt should Price suffer a minor injury during the course of the game.
What’s clear is that the Huskies, desperate for a victory, would prefer to have Locker taking snaps on Saturday afternoon.
And Locker would prefer to be doing it. Instead, he’ll have a new role.
“I’ll be their No. 1 cheerleader Saturday,” the quarterback said.