Locker set to go as Washington hosts UCLA
Washington is making sure the final home game of Jake Locker's career is quite the spectacle.
And not just because the Huskies are wearing all black uniforms for the first time in school history.
Locker's status for the 22nd and final home game of his career on Thursday night against UCLA was in doubt after he suffered a broken rib against Stanford on Oct. 30. He was a spectator as the Huskies (3-6, 2-4 Pac-10) lost at No. 1 Oregon, but it was widely believed he would be cleared to start against the Bruins (4-5, 2-4).
Enter the gamesmanship - and evasiveness - on the part of Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.
All week, Sarkisian played up the uncertainty of Locker's availability, taking it all the way to Tuesday, when he coyly said doctors still hadn't given Locker the all clear to play, even after the Huskies' star QB practiced four straight days.
Sarkisian then went the social media route a mere 90 minutes later, announcing on his Twitter account that Locker had been cleared to play.
''In a perfect world, yeah, sure, I'd love to know for sure,'' Sarkisian said before turning to the Internet to announce Locker's status. ''But the reality of it is, we've got a game plan that's conducive to both quarterbacks and to the rest of our team's strengths. Either way, we'll be fine. I like what we're doing, so we'll be ready to play.''
Reality was it would take something more severe than a broken rib to take Locker off the field for his final home game, especially considering all the notoriety he gained by returning to Washington for his senior season in the first place.
Even UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel wasn't buying Sarkisian's bob-and-weave, saying he ''100 percent'' expected Locker to play.
''It's kind of weird to think about playing a last game here. It is another game within the season, and that is how we've got to approach it. We can't let the emotions and everything else everybody else will put on this game make it more important than it is, or add more emotion than needs to be added,'' Locker said. ''It's a football game that we need to win to keep our season alive, and have the opportunity to keep going after our 12th game. I think it's something for us we just need to approach it that way, prepare for it that way, come out and have fun and play the game of football.''
Aside from the somewhat comical handling of Locker's status are the much larger ramifications the game holds for both UCLA and Washington. The Huskies must win their final three games to become bowl eligible and match the expectations most had before the season started.
Same holds true for UCLA, which needs wins in two of its final three - two of which are on the road - to reach six wins and likely a bowl game for the second straight season under Neuheisel.
The common line of not looking ahead was prevalent among both teams this week, although each understands the bigger picture of how precarious their postseason hopes remain.
''We are very aware of the fact of how important these last three games are to our season,'' Sarkisian said. ''But the fact of the matter is you can't win all three football games until you win the first one and that's the task at hand.''
For Washington's seniors, the final home game at Husky Stadium will provide closure to a career of unprecedented losing and the beginnings of a revival. It was only two years ago that the Huskies went 0-12, the only winless season in school history that led to the dismissal of former coach Tyrone Willingham.
Now they face the challenge of needing wins over UCLA, at California and at rival Washington State to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2002, when Neuheisel was the Huskies coach.
While the Huskies were getting thrashed by Oregon on Nov. 6, the Bruins were pulling an unlikely upset to keep their bowl hopes alive, knocking off Oregon State 17-14 at the Rose Bowl. After dropping three straight in October to California, Oregon and Arizona - and getting outscored 124-41 in the process - UCLA's rebound victory over Oregon State was critical.
The stars that day were quarterback Richard Brehaut and running back Johnathan Franklin, who combined for 161 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The Bruins defense also limited Oregon State to just 267 total yards.
Whenever the Bruins return to Seattle with Neuheisel as coach, there will always be a little bit of animosity from Washington fans who still believe Neuheisel's ugly divorce from the school after the 2002 season was the catalyst for the lowly depths the program reached just a few years ago.
Neuheisel's message: it's time to move on.
''There were a lot of mistakes made. Certainly, I made some. But it's been seven years; my last year coaching there was 2002. So there's been ample time to fix things,'' Neuheisel said. ''I know they're excited about the regime that's in there now. Those guys are good football coaches and doing a good job recruiting, so I'm sure it'll turn here quickly.''