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Matt Hinton

Saturday keys: Washington's way forward begins in the back four

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Inside the day's key matchups.

After seven years in (or at least very near) the Pac-10 cellar, the obvious strides under rookie head coach Steve Sarkisian last year left Washington as one of the nation's most vexing Rorschach tests over the last eight months: Reemerging power on its way to reclaiming its former perch among the West Coast elite, or perennial mediocrity still years away from clearing the decay of a lost decade under Keith Gilbertson and Ty Willingham? Given the intense spotlight on senior quarterback Jake Locker, the answer so far has probably depended on whether you see Locker as the prototypical pocket hero beloved by pro scouts, or an overhyped scrambler whose meh production hasn't come close to justifying the hype. That's one of the questions that will begin to be answered tonight when the Huskies open at BYU.

But whatever your opinion of Sarkisian, Locker and the rest of the potentially explosive arsenal at their disposal on offense, the real dividing line between a special season and a turbulent slog toward .500 will come from the defense. Where Locker and Co. nearly doubled the scoring last year over the dismal output of 2008, the strides on defense still left the Huskies at the bottom of the Pac-10 (ahead of only hapless Washington State) in rushing, pass efficiency and scoring D, and eighth in yards allowed. The secondary, still led by three holdovers from the worst defense in the conference in '08, was repeatedly bombed following the stunning clampdown on USC in September: Over the next seven games, opposing quarterbacks completed more than two-thirds of their passes for and 12 touchdowns; Stanford, Notre Dame, Oregon and Oregon State all scored at least 34 points, and the Huskies went 1-6.

That's a terrifying prospect against BYU, which continues to churn out first-rate models from the same assembly line of generic white-bread slingers that produced Sarkisian in the mid-nineties. The most recent editions, three-year starters John Beck (2004-06) and Max Hall (2007-09), have easily led the Mountain West in yards and touchdowns in six consecutive seasons, the last five under head coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae, a former Mike Leach assistant at Texas Tech. The last time Washington saw this offense, it was being torched by Hall for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-27 loss in Seattle that sent the 2008 season spiraling toward its horrific 0-12 conclusion.

When the ball kicks tonight in Provo, though, the Huskies will be sending a secondary with 70 career starts among seven different players – most notably sophomore corner Desmond Trufant, an honorable mention All-Pac-10 guy as a true freshman, and two-year starters Quinton Richardson and Nate Williams – up against a pair of brand new quarterbacks, Utah State transfer Riley Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps, who have yet to take a snap for BYU. They'll also be working without Hall's favorite target over the last three years, departed tight end Dennis Pitta, and the school's all-time leading rusher, the prematurely banished Harvey Unga – in other words, the perfect situation for a veteran outfit to prove its on the verge of turning the corner.

Jake Locker, we can assume, is going to be fine. But the relevant tea leaves going forward will come from the other side of the ball: If the Huskies still get lit up in one of the friendlier scenarios they'll face all season, it's going to be another long year.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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