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October 4, 2010

First look: Washington

Jake Locker had been bruised, battered and beaten to a pulp for the better part of a warm Saturday afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.

Now the real lashing was on the way.

After a humiliating 52-21 home loss at the hands of then-eighth-ranked Nebraska on Sept. 18, a performance in which Washington quarterback Locker -- who many experts opine will be the top pick in next April's NFL draft -- completed just 4 of 20 passes with two interceptions, scribes, pundits and message board regulars went to work, pounding their keys in doubt of the Husky signal-caller.

Locker stiff-armed the critcism away like a helpless defensive back in his path.

The senior, who passed up sure-fire lottery status in last year's draft to return for his final season in Seattle, passed for 310 yards and rushed for 110 more last Saturday, rebounding from an uncharacteristically poor effort to lead his team to a 32-31 road win over then-No. 18 USC. It was the second straight season Washington (2-2, 1-0 Pac-10) upset the Trojans on a game-winning field goal by Erik Folk.

"Games like this and efforts like this are the reason why I did (return)," Locker told the Seattle Times after the game.

Locker showed the resiliency against the Trojans that is a factor in his being pegged so high on mock draft boards. After being knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter following a hard hit at the bottom of a pile, Locker returned to orchestrate a dramatic winning drive, one in which he needed to complete a fourth-and-10 pass from his own 23 to keep the Huskies' chances alive.

It's Locker's get-up-and-wipe-the-dirt-off mentality that has earned him the admiration of opposing coaches, including Arizona State's Dennis Erickson, who is charged with constructing a game plan to counter the quarterback when the Sun Devils (2-3, 0-2) travel to Seattle Saturday for a crucial Pac-10 showdown with the Huskies.

"He isn't what he is without being one of the biggest competitors around that I've ever seen," Erickson said of Locker. "He had a bad game against Nebraska and we all have those. The difference between him and a lot of people is that he came back the next week and beat a great football team on the road. He took the game over himself."

ASU defeated Washington last season on a last-second touchdown heave from Danny Sullivan to Chris McGaha, marking the last time the Sun Devils defeated a FBS team.

Now it is desperation time for ASU, which needs to win five of its final seven games to avoid missing the postseason for the third straight season. Its chances to get back on a winning track and save a season will likely begin and end, at least defensively, with containing the dual-threat capabilities of Locker.

"He ran the ball (against USC) more than he has been, which is a tremendous advantage for him," said Erickson, who called Locker a "warrior" and compared him to former Florida star quarterback Tim Tebow. "It opened up things for them in the passing game."

Locker has also benefitted from an improved receiving corps that Erickson thinks may be the Pac-10's best. Jermaine Kearse is first in the conference in receiving averaging 107 yards per game and Erickson noted the emergence of Devin Aguilar (eighth in the Pac-10 at 57.8 yards per game).

Sophomore running back Chris Polk provides balance out of the backfield, averaging 89 yards per game on the ground, good enough for sixth in the conference.

"They have a lot of weapons on offense," Erickson said.

While Washington has yielded some big scoring outputs through the first third of the season, it buckled down when it needed to most against USC. The unit is led by senior linebacker Mason Foster, the conference's tackling leader with 48.

"They are athletic and well coached," ASU junior quarterback Steven Threet said of the Husky D. "They are a good team and they have played some good offenses this year and have done a good job."

Erickson on Vontaze

The ASU coach was questioned repeatedly during his press conference Monday about the actions of sophomore middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who, in the closing minutes of ASU's loss to Oregon State, head butted Beaver quarterback Ryan Katz.

(Burfict received a personal foul on the play, but that infraction was offset by a simultaneous penalty on Oregon State.)

"His behavior is under control when he can control it," Erickson said. "He will go along for 58 minutes and he doesn't react. He (then) sometimes will react to things that are not important. It's football when someone blocks you or shoves you after the whistle. His personality is such that he reacts to stuff like that and he knows what he has to do. He will get better."

Erickson said he believes Burfict is baited by opponents more than any player he has coached, adding that he, defensive coordinator Craig Bray and linebackers coach Trent Bray have had numerous conversations with the sophomore about controlling his aggression.

The linebacker currently leads the team with 42 tackles, tied for fifth-best in the Pac-10.

Red-zone miscues

At this point, it appears to be the needle on the record player itself that may be broken. The tune for the ASU continued to be the same Saturday when it was unable to take advantage of opportunities inside the opponent's 20-yard line. The Sun Devils rank 111th in the nation in red-zone efficiency.

"As you go through the red zone, you can't make mental mistakes like throwing it to the wrong place or having bad snaps," Erickson said. "We're just not finishing the drives. There are things down there that we can do better and we are looking at that. We have to do the same things going in as we do coming out. That's our issues and is why we have lost three games in a row."

Threet, whose interceptions deep in enemy territory has been an Achilles' heel the past two weeks, shouldered much of the blame for the inconsistencies.

"I just have made poor decisions," the quarterback said. "It was maybe not the best decision, but I can't make those mistakes. I have to do a better job of executing the offense and getting points in the red zone. Out on the field, I can't put the defense in bad situations."

Injuries piling up

In addition to picking up its third-straight loss, ASU also left Corvallis, Ore., with heavy ink on the injury report.

Sophomore cornerback Deveron Carr will likely be out a month after re-aggravating a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the latter portion of last season's schedule.

Starting in his place will be redshirt freshman Osahon Irabor. Erickson said freshman safety Alden Darby will be moved to cornerback, where he practiced at the beginning of fall camp.

Junior wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad is suffering from turf toe, and Erickson said he would be "very surprised" if the slot specialist is able to play against Washington. Sophomore Jamal Miles may transition into the slot in Pflugrad's absence.

Also bit by the injury bug his freshman sensation Deantre Lewis, who suffered a ligament sprain in his shoulder against Oregon State. Erickson said the running back, who notched his third-straight 100-yard game Saturday, is questionable for the Washington conetest.


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