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September 20, 2010

Monday with Mike: Questions arise for Locker

Last season, a lot of draft talk about Florida's Tim Tebow and Texas' Colt McCoy centered on their perceived limitations. No one questioned their intangibles, but their physical abilities, including their throwing motions and lack of arm strength, led to questions.

Now Washington senior Jake Locker is in the draft cross-hairs. No one questions his physical abilities, but you wonder if his intangibles are going to be in question. Locker has started 31 games in his career. He has won nine of them. That's a winning percentage of 29.0.

Indeed, his struggles bring to mind, in a way, LSU's JaMarcus Russell. Russell had far more talent around him and played in a winning program. But if you truly studied Russell in college, there's no way you could say he had the "it" factor needed to be a big-time quarterback. Sure, he could wing it 60 yards from his knees, but when it came to making a big play in a big game, well, there were far more head-scratching plays -- like throwing it to the Auburn 10 instead of into the end zone on the final snap -- than there were memorable moments. The measurables were there. The intangibles? No.

We're certainly not writing off Locker by comparing him to Russell. But Locker is coming off the worst game of his career, a 4-of-20, two-interception effort against Nebraska in which he was thoroughly outplayed by Huskers redshirt freshman QB Taylor Martinez in a 56-21 Nebraska beatdown.

"It was hard to get open, and when we did, I thought maybe Jake was pressing a little," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian told reporters afterward.

Locker's first pass of the game was thrown into double coverage, and it was picked off. The rest of the day basically followed suit.

"I felt really good about the game plan and felt really comfortable when we got into the game and we just, for one reason or another, we weren't able to execute in the passing game," he told reporters.

Locker also said he would do his best to make sure this loss didn't linger.

"It's the third game of the year," he said. "There is still a lot of football to be played, and the greatest part of this is we get to play another one in two weekends, so it's going to be important to put this one behind us, have two good weeks of work and get ready to start Pac-10 Conference play."

Locker hasn't had the luxury of playing with a lot of talented players, especially on defense. This season, though, the Huskies have good skill-position talent; RB Christian Polk and WR Jermaine Kearse have all-conference potential. But Locker was unable to lead a comeback in the opener against BYU, which since has been blown out by Air Force and Florida State, and looked overmatched against the Huskers.

There was a 289-yard, four-TD performance against Syracuse in-between, but good quarterbacks should rip up the worst team in the Big East. Good quarterbacks also need to step up against "good" teams.

Locker played well at times last season, most notably in wins over bowl teams Arizona and California. But there haven't been enough of those in his career.

In his 31 games, Locker has thrown for exactly 6,000 yards, with 42 TDs and 28 picks; he also has run for another 1,654 yards and 25 scores. His athleticism probably is one reason he has been overrated. He ran for 986 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2007, but he threw more picks than TDs and Washington went 4-8. He started the first four games -- all losses -- in '08 before breaking his thumb in the fourth game.

Then came last season, his first under Sarkisian. There was some inconsistency, but supporters pointed out that it was his first season in a pro-style attack and that his play actually was solid, considering the constraints he had played under before.

Locker was seen as a sure-fire first-rounder after last season, but was widely hailed for his decision to stay in school and learn for one more season under Sarkisian. Now, though, you wonder if more scrutiny will lead to a first-round freefall in the draft.

The Huskies, thankfully for them, are off this week. But then comes Pac-10 play, and with the exception of UCLA (game 10) and Washington State (the regular-season finale), every team they play from here on out has legitimate bowl hopes. And, frankly, Locker will see defenses that resemble BYU's and Nebraska's much more than Syracuse's. That can't be a comforting thought for him or the Huskies.

Big problems at Ole Miss
Ole Miss was supposed to have a big season in 2009. It didn't materialize, but '09 looks like a season to cherish compared to how this season has begun.

The Rebels lost some key players off last season's 9-4 team, most notably RB Dexter McCluster, WR Marshay Green and three-quarters of their starting secondary. But the return of a stout defensive front four, the arrival of transfer QB Jeremiah Masoli and an easy early schedule made it seem as if the Rebels had a chance to come close to last season's wins total.

But Ole Miss has started 1-2, with home losses to FCS member Jacksonville State and SEC bottom-feeder Vanderbilt. Turnovers have killed the Rebels, who have a minus-5 turnover margin. The defense hasn't given up that many yards (322.3 per game) but it has given up a ton of points (30.0 per game, to rank 91st in the nation in that category). Vandy had a 96-yard scoring drive and also scored on an 80-yard run in its 28-14 upset of the Rebels on Saturday, and SEC-caliber defenses don't let Vandy do either.

Masoli would've been a legit Heisman candidate had he remained at Oregon, but it's looking more and more as if the Ducks' surrounding talent made him appear better than he really is. Masoli has run for 160 yards and two TDs and thrown for another 580 yards and a score. But he also has thrown four picks and doesn't look totally comfortable in the Rebels' scheme.

One problem is that Masoli doesn't have much help on offense, and the Rebels' lack of a playmaker at wide receiver really hurts. But Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt always is optimistic, if nothing else, and he sees potential in this offense.

"I thought if you watched the film from start to finish or saw the game, the one thing that you see is that there are opportunities there," he told reporters Sunday. "We left anywhere from 17-24 points, any way you look at it, on the football field."

The offense better start clicking soon; the Rebels play host to Fresno State this Saturday, and on paper, the Bulldogs are vastly better than anyone Ole Miss has played this season. After that, it's four SEC games in a row, including back-to-back trips to Alabama and Arkansas.

As it stands, if Ole Miss can somehow finish 6-6 and get to a bowl, it will have been a remarkable turnaround.

Grid bits
Temple is 3-0 for the first time since 1979 and just the third time since 1966 after beating Connecticut 30-16. The Owls now have won eight in a row at home, the longest home winning streak since they won seven in a row in 1940-41. Sophomore RB Bernard Pierce ran for 169 yards and three TDs on 16 carries. That's the second time in three games that UConn's celebrated defense has been run over; the Huskies were sliced and diced by Michigan in their opener. UConn looked like a legit Big East contender before the season, but the 1-2 start has raised questions. Still, the Big East is such that UConn still might be a contender. Coach Randy Edsall's defense has been the problem, which is a huge surprise. The Huskies have Buffalo this week and need to show some improvement.

The Auburn-Clemson game was like a heavyweight fight, with each team landing some haymakers. Clemson is lucky in that it has this weekend off, but how much is Auburn going to have left after an extremely physical battle? The Tigers play host to South Carolina in a huge SEC game, and South Carolina is coming in off a win over FCS member Furman.

Oklahoma State rolled up a school-record 722 yards in obliterating Tulsa 65-28. The Cowboys led 41-7 at halftime and increased that lead to 58-7 midway through the third quarter. Cowboys first-year starting QB Brandon Weeden threw for 409 yards and six TDs before taking a seat after Oklahoma State took a 51-7 lead. In all, Oklahoma State threw for 574 yards under first-year coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who had held the same position at Houston for the past two seasons. Sophomore WR Justin Blackmon had six catches for 174 yards and three TDs; he already has eight TD receptions this season. Oklahoma State scored 65 points for the second time this season and is averaging 57.0 points per game, which is second nationally.

Leading the nation in scoring is Oregon, at 63.0 points per game, after the Ducks buried FCS member Portland State 69-0 Saturday; Oregon didn't score in the fourth quarter. The Ducks rolled up 668 yards and scored nine TDs. RB LaMichael James ran for 227 yards and three TDs on just 14 carries -- and it all came in the first half, which ended with the Ducks leading 45-0. No Ducks starter played in the second half. Oregon has outscored its three foes 189-13 and is averaging 611.7 yards per game. Next up is Arizona State in the Pac-10 opener for both. The Sun Devils gave up 194 rushing yards in a one-point loss at Wisconsin on Saturday.

Georgia Tech had a 10-minute time-of-possession advantage (35 minutes to 25) in its 30-24 victory at North Carolina. Given UNC's lack of depth on defense because of NCAA-mandated suspensions, the difference in time of possession was big because the Tar Heels ran out of gas. Tech's advantage in the second half was 20:30 to 9:30, and the Yellow Jackets outscored the Heels 13-7 in the final two periods.

Texas A&M is used to QB Jerrod Johnson leading the way, but it was the Aggies' rushing attack that saved them from an embarrassing loss Saturday night. A&M trailed Florida International 20-6 entering the fourth period before rallying for three touchdowns, including a 40-yard run by Cyrus Gray and a 47-yarder from Christine Michael, to pull out the 27-20 win. Johnson threw for 194 yards, but he was just 11-of-31, threw four picks and was sacked six times; he also lost a fumble on a sack. FIU drove inside A&M's 10 inside the last minute, but failed to convert a fourth-and-goal from the Aggies' 7. A&M's next game is a biggie, on Thursday, Sept. 30, when it travels to Oklahoma State for a key game in the Big 12 South.

North Texas coach Todd Dodge came into the season 5-31 in his three seasons with the Mean Green, and conventional wisdom was that he was coaching for his job this season. Well, things don't look good for Dodge. The Mean Green are 0-3 and Dodge is down to his third-team quarterback. Starter Nathan Tune suffered a dislocated hip last week and likely will miss the rest of the season. Backup Derek Thompson then suffered a broken leg in Saturday's 24-0 loss at Army. That means Dodge's son, Riley, is the new starter. Riley Dodge started last season, but after offseason shoulder surgery, he was moved to wide receiver because his arm no longer was considered strong enough to play quarterback. Alas ...

Nevada senior QB Colin Kaepernick had struggled in his five previous meetings with Big Six defenses, being held to less than 100 rushing yards each time. But he had a huge game Friday in a 52-31 trouncing of California. Kaepernick ran for 148 yards and three TDs and threw for 181 yards and two scores. Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack travel to BYU this week, and the Cougars have been brutal against the run, allowing a staggering 271.7 rushing yards per game.

One of the best games of the day was played in Birmingham, Ala., where UAB scored on a 44-yard pass with 10 seconds left to beat Troy 34-33. Troy blew a 23-0 first-half lead, and the winning margin was a missed extra point on Troy's first TD of the day. The teams combined for 1,101 yards of offense, including 792 passing yards, and 56 first downs.

The ending to the Troy-UAB game was nothing compared to the wild finish at a FCS game involving Eastern Washington and Montana. The game marked the christening of the red turf at Roos Field, named for the Tennessee Titans offensive lineman (Michael Roos) who donated the money for the surface. EWU kicked a 31-yard field goal with four seconds left for a 30-27 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, fans poured onto the field as Montana attempted several laterals. EWU was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and Montana had one untimed play from its 40. QB Justin Roper, an Oregon transfer, fumbled when he was hit and EWU's Renard Williams scored on a 34-yard return, sending the fans onto the field again.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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