SEATTLE (AP) -Jake Locker made it look almost too easy in leading Washington to a 2-0 start, suddenly energizing hopes of the Huskies returning to the national stage.
How quickly it can change.
Now the Huskies are 2-2, Locker is combating the youthful struggles most redshirt freshmen endure, and No. 1 Southern Cal is coming to town on Saturday.
Suddenly, Locker is having to deal with adversity he's rarely faced. After all, he went undefeated as a high school senior and didn't experience losing for nearly two years.
Washington's losses to Ohio State and UCLA are the first time Locker has lost consecutive games since his sophomore year of high school - although technically one of those defeats later was forfeited back to Locker's team.
And now, the Huskies will try to rebound against the Trojans - not necessarily the optimal opponent to right the situation.
``They are obviously the best team in the country,'' coach Tyrone Willingham said Monday. ``They are better than a year ago in every aspect.''
That's not necessarily the news the Washington offense wants to hear, with a streaky passing game that took three quarters to find a rhythm in Saturday's 44-31 loss to UCLA, and a run game carried almost entirely by the quarterback.
Individually, Locker ranks sixth in the Pac-10 in rushing, averaging 90 yards per game, ahead of the featured backs from Stanford, Washington State and even USC's leading rusher, Stafon Johnson. He has 361 yards rushing through four games, and could become the first Washington quarterback to lead the team in rushing since Denny Fitzpatrick in 1974.
But outside of Locker, the Huskies run game has been essentially non existent the last three weeks. Running back Louis Rankin went for 147 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Syracuse, but has a combined 129 yards the last three games. No other back has more than nine carries.
While Locker continues to find seams and use his stunning size and speed to pick up yards on the ground, teams are starting to scheme against his running ability and force Locker to improve upon what has been an average passing game.
UCLA appeared to adjust its pass rush at halftime on Saturday, trying to keep Locker in the pocket. It'll only continue.
``It's something that has been a strength for us so far and I definitely expect every week they're going to try and come up with some kind of scheme, whether it's a spy or a blitz, something like that, to try and keep me in the pocket and not allow me to run,'' Locker said.
When given time to throw, Locker hasn't managed to connect with open receivers. He was 5 of 14 at halftime and was just 6 of 21 late in the third quarter, often missing on third-down when the Huskies needed conversions to sustain drives and give their defense a rest.
Locker did close strong as Washington tried to rally from a 14-point deficit. He completed 11 of 15 throws late, including three TD passes in the fourth quarter, to finish with a season-high 216 yards passing.
Receiver Anthony Russo noticed the UCLA defense focusing mostly on stopping Washington's short and intermediate routes. It wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Huskies began taking shots downfield and found the most success.
``When we started opening up the playbook, we started scoring points,'' Russo said. ``A lot of teams are starting to play up on Jake ... But we opened up the playbook and it definitely worked. Hopefully the coaches open it up some more.''
Still, Washington ranks last in the conference in passing offense, and Locker brings up the rear in pass efficiency and yards per game.
Despite the throwing struggles, Locker is continuing to impress.
``I just can't help but be totally attracted by what Jake has done,'' USC coach Pete Carroll said. ``He is just an outstanding football player for a first time around freshman.''
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