The best moment of Jake Locker's best game as a college quarterback was not his fourth-down, make-the-completion-or-go-home-as-a-loser pass to D'Andre Goodwin on Saturday night.
Nor was it Locker’s 8-yard scramble for a first down at the USC 20, which put Erik Folk in position to kick the field goal that gave the Huskies their first road victory in almost three years.
Both were clutch plays, but a few years from now, when Locker is an NFL star whose Washington career endures only in record books, video clips and memory banks, those moments won’t define the essence of the quarterback.
This moment will: He’d thrown a short pass that slipped through the grasp of an open receiver. One of what seemed like a dozen dropped balls Saturday night, it was the kind of unforced error that is prone to infuriate a hot-blooded competitor who has reason to believe he’s the best player on the field.
As soon as the whistle blew the play dead, Locker slapped his hands in frustration. Then he slapped his hands again and again. He was clapping now, rallying his teammates, offering encouragement instead of admonishment.
The Huskies’ 32-31 upset win over USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum was decided in the final seconds of a game that lasted almost three-and-a-half hours. The visitors finished with 537 yards of total offense, and if it weren’t for the drops, they’d have pushed that output past 600.
And yet, what I’ll most remember is Locker’s demeanor after throwing a perfect pass that wasn’t caught. He didn’t stomp. He didn’t gesture. He didn’t exude the body English that asked, “Why is this happening to me?”
In that moment, Locker’s determination to accentuate the positive symbolized the season that he rejuvenated Saturday night. Two weeks ago, his Heisman Trophy campaign expired with a 4-for-20 passing performance against Nebraska at Husky Stadium. No sooner was Locker’s first, ill-chosen throw into double coverage intercepted than pro football talent evaluators questioned his once-certain status as a top-three pick in the 2011 draft.
That bold decision to return to school for one last shot at a bowl game? Instead of drawing praise for renouncing immediate and unfathomable wealth, Locker was mocked across America: The dummy. He coulda been a gazillionaire.
Locker’s response to the snickers was similar to his reaction to that dropped pass against USC. He didn’t sulk. He didn’t stew. He didn’t ask, “Why is this happening to me?”
If there’s a bye on the Huskies’ schedule, coach Steve Sarkisian typically allows the starting quarterback to sit out the first practice of the week off. Locker wanted no part of that deal. When Sarkisian returned to his office on the Monday after the Nebraska debacle, the first player to knock on his door was the guy whose senior season had turned into a cruel joke.
There was work to do.
In hindsight, there’s one consolation Locker took from his humiliation by the Huskers: It came in September, only three weeks into a regular season that won’t conclude until Dec. 4. Even the draft pundits who wondered why the fifth-year senior hadn’t made more progress operating Sarkisian’s pro-style offense had to acknowledge that Locker’s ability to bounce back from adversity would be a better measurement of his NFL potential than his jaw-dropping scouting combine numbers.
Concerns about any psychological bruises Locker might’ve sustained at the hands of the Nebraska defense were put to rest on Washington’s first drive Saturday, when the Huskies opened with a series of short, high-percentage passes that put Locker into a throw-and-catch rhythm.
Sarkisian – who clearly prevailed in the tactical battle with Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, his friend and former USC colleague – further improved Locker’s passing rhythm by allowing the quarterback to roll out.
The moving pocket scheme not only produced 310 passing yards for Locker, it revived his seemingly dormant skills as a breakaway running threat. He finished with 110 rushing yards, reminding the world why he was worthy of his preseason hype.
“That was the worry all week, that he’d play like that,” Kiffin said afterward.
Locker’s Heisman Trophy chances rank somewhere alongside Mel Gibson’s shot at the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s been erased from that conversation. (As has just about everybody else. Unless Michigan’s electrifying Denard Robinson develops a debilitating case of stage fright, the award will go to the sophomore quarterback nicknamed “Shoelace.”)
But Locker’s potential as a No. 1 overall draft choice, which was downgraded two weeks ago to questionable – as in: “You can’t be serious, can you?” – has been restored. It was impossible to watch him Saturday without marveling at the most potent combination of arm strength and foot speed in a college quarterback since John Elway.
Locker’s performance was good to the point it approached perfection.
And when perfection was denied by his teammates’ failure to catch the ball, he was even better.