LINCOLN, Neb. — Rickey Thenarse has heard all about Jake Locker.
About how the Washington quarterback is a Heisman Trophy candidate and projected No. 1 draft pick, about how he can strong-arm passes into narrow openings, about how he can be just as dangerous as a runner when his protection breaks down.
To Thenarse, the Locker lore is a great motivator for No. 8 Nebraska (2-0) as it prepares for Saturday’s game against the Huskies (1-1) in Seattle.
“We want to go out and play good defense and make him prove to the world that he’s a great quarterback,” the senior safety said. “We don’t want to put him on no pedestal.
“We want to go out and prove that we can take down a good quarterback with our defense. We’re a pretty confident group. We’ll just see on Saturday.”
Nebraska’s defense is coming off a five-interception, seven-sack outing against Idaho last week.
But it’s a unit that’s still in the developmental stage after two major injuries at linebacker and the departure of Associated Press national player of the year Ndamukong Suh, who is now a rising star for the Detroit Lions.
Sure, the Huskers had lots of interceptions and sacks last week. But their overall numbers against overmatched Western Kentucky and Idaho have been good, not great, when compared with the 2009 defense that allowed the fewest points in the nation and ranked seventh overall.
“The first two opponents were good teams, but definitely going against a team like Washington, we’re really going to see how far we’ve come and what we’re made of,” defensive tackle Jared Crick said. “If we can come out of there with a ’W,’ it’s going to tell a lot of things for us.”
Strong defense has been the Huskers’ identity in Bo Pelini’s three seasons as coach. His team has championship aspirations this season, and with Big 12 play starting in two weeks, the matchup with Locker will prepare the Huskers for what lies ahead.
“He’s as talented a quarterback as we’ve faced in the three years I’ve been here,” defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said.
Though Washington hasn’t won more than five games in a season since 2003, Locker last year led the Huskies to upsets of then-No. 3 USC and then-No. 19 California. Some NFL draft gurus believe Locker would have been the No. 1 overall pick in April if he had not decided to return to school.
“Just hearing the hype, it’s definitely going to be fun to see what we can do against a guy who could potentially go very high in the draft,” Crick said.
Locker’s main target is Jermaine Kearse, who has 287 yards on 14 catches in games against BYU and Syracuse. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder set career highs with nine catches, 179 yards and three touchdowns passes last week.
“He doesn’t seem like a big receiver like we have, but he has the ability to break a lot of tackles and make a lot of plays,” safety DeJon Gomes said.
Crick said it’s essential to maintain discipline against Locker, who won’t hesitate to run if the pocket collapses.
“We’ve gone against plenty of dual-threat quarterbacks, so it’s not our first rodeo,” Crick said. “We’re going to go in with a smart, pass-rush mindset, but we’re going to try to get after him as best we can.
“We’ve got to keep hitting him every time we get a chance and slowly but surely make him feel us. It’s going to be hard to rattle the guy, but if we can grind away at him, we can do good things.”