University of Washington

Burden of Heisman too heavy for Huskies

A moment of silence, please, for the expired Heisman Trophy campaign of Jake Locker.

When you consider the only player from the Pacific Northwest to have won college football’s ultimate individual award was Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker in 1962, the odds of Locker merely qualifying as a finalist were longer than Alex Gibbs’ shot at the Seahawks Ring of Honor.

Still, I must admit to buying some of the preseason hype surrounding Locker – OK, buying all of it – to the point I expected him to convert his final pass attempt at BYU on Saturday into the 26-yard touchdown that would turn a 23-17 defeat into a 24-23 victory.

But instead of resembling a Heisman Trophy recipient during the Huskies’ last drive, the fifth-year senior looked like just another flummoxed college quarterback whose throw was deflected by a hand he didn’t anticipate.

Although the batted-down pass was incomplete, it prompted a reception – on the sideline, where coach Steve Sarkisian confronted Locker and appeared to ask: “Uh, Jake, what was that about?”

Because winning the trophy would’ve required momentum supplied by a strong start to a bang-up season – at least eight or nine victories, and a sustained poll presence in the Top 25 – Jake Locker no longer is on the Heisman’s radar screen.

That’s the bad news.

The good news?

Jake Locker no longer is on the Heisman’s radar screen.

I can’t be hypocritical about this: Locker’s candidacy was fun.

It was fun for those of us who watch games from the press box, fun for fans, fun for Locker’s teammates and coaches.

Two years after Washington finished 0-12, the notion of the worst overall team in the land producing the best overall player in the land gave the dreary Seattle sports landscape a veneer of big-time relevance.

But I suspect a Heisman Trophy subplot to the 2010 season was too much, too soon for the Huskies. I suspect their long-range ambitions for Locker obscured the more urgent task at hand.

Five minutes into the opener at BYU, it was clear that UW was capable of achieving a milestone road victory, its first since Aug. 31, 2007.

The Huskies had the edge in speed, which is to say, they had the edge in potential open-field mismatches. They had nine starters returning from an offense that was all-systems go late last season. They had the veteran quarterback who spurned the NFL draft.

The Huskies boasted all this firepower Saturday, and yet they scored one touchdown over the final 55 minutes. Shoddy special teams play consistently found them in poor field position, and the struggles of a defense fatigued in the heat and high altitude might’ve been mitigated by the one turnover it never forced.

But responsibility for the defeat rests with an offense that tried too hard to prove its quarterback was Heisman-worthy. Sarkisian, the primary play-caller, tried too hard when he turned down a field-goal opportunity by Erik Folk for the opportunity to showcase Locker’s passing arm early in the fourth quarter. Folk already had converted a 54-yard attempt before halftime; his 40-yarder in the mountain air qualified as a virtual chip shot.

In lieu of the three points that would’ve set the Huskies up on a subsequent drive for a game-tying field and overtime, Locker threw a deep pass to Jermaine Kearse in the right corner of the end zone, broken up by the Cougars’ Brian Logan.

It was fourth-and-2. A deep pass into the end zone wasn’t necessary.

All that was necessary was two yards and the first down.

Which brings us to Locker himself, a modest star who had come to a grudging acknowledgment that his Heisman Trophy candidacy presented invaluable benefits to the school associated with it.

You’ll never convince me that Locker threw deep on fourth-and-2 to enhance his Heisman credentials. He’d never do that – his conscience wouldn’t allow it.

But subconsciously? Who’s to say? If you’re in the conversation for a Heisman, you’re supposed to make a terrific play on fourth-and-2. A short lob to a secondary target in the flat might pick up 2 yards and the first down, but it isn’t Heisman-esque.

The spurned field-goal opportunity and end-zone incompletion on fourth-and-2 wasn’t the reason the Huskies lost Saturday. It was more a symptom suggesting the team’s misguided sense that an adherence to simple fundamentals wasn’t going to be good enough.

“I think we just made our stuff up,” running back Chris Polk said. “We didn’t do what we were coached to do. We just came out there and tried to do our own thing. When we were doing what we are coached to do, they couldn’t stop us. Every play was working for us, but we just made our own stuff up.”

Why would a month of crisp, upbeat practices, with no off-field distractions, be rendered moot because some players ignored what they were coached to do?

Why was the Huskies’ offense flat, when everything was in place for it to be sharp?

The Heisman Trophy is why. It was on the horizon – the very distant horizon, but out there, tangible and reachable. The Heisman Trophy distracted the Huskies on Saturday, challenging them to be spectacular when all they needed to be was themselves.

The brief campaign was fun, and might’ve been a real hoot had it developed some legs and survived into November. How would Locker and his teammates embrace the unique pressure of a Heisman race 10 games into the season?

That’s a question left for the imagination, but here’s a clue: The opener was barely five minutes old when a 25-pound piece of sculpted bronze proved too heavy for the Huskies to handle.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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