Thiel: Sark doesn't much remember the Alamo

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on August 7, 2012 at 7:44 PM

This just in: After an exhaustive investigation, the NCAA has determined the 2011 Alamo Bowl is over.

As football fans of the University of Washington and Baylor University may recall, their December bowl game in San Antonio found a breach in the space-time continuum and entered into a parallel universe, with Baylor ahead 67-56 when telemetry failed and lost connection with ground observatories.

The NCAA's Astronomy Dept. concluded the game ended shortly thereafter, and returned through a wormhole. Most of the participants survived, with the notable exception of the Huskies defensive coaching staff.

Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian, shaken but undeterred, is back and plans to pursue the final frontier again, this time with a defense that he believes is able to stop a running play on third-and-20.

Monday, in his first big media chat since emerging from the Texas debris field, he confirmed the Alamo Bowl was over.

"That was last year," he said, responding to a question (with a barely disguised harrumph) about the lasting image many have of Huskies football. "I'm not troubled by it. If anything, it's been a positive. I think our guys have really come into this camp with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder.

"I think the perception is: 'You know what? Washington is pretty good. That was the No. 10 team in the country they went toe-to-toe with.' Hopefully we've improved from that."

Toe-to-toe? I suppose. But after a 7-6 season with a relatively soft schedule that (bowl game included) had an average score of Opponents 36, Huskies 33, the reward of season-long toe-to-toe was a ghoulish panorama of split lips, broken teeth and bloody noses. If you're into looks, that is.

Losing a game where no bowl had gone before implies that the returning guys who gave up an airplane's worth of real estate (777 yards) are scarred for life.

Naturally, Sarkisian is having none of it.

"The day I sit up here in front of you guys and say we are a mentally weak team, I'm in trouble," he said, not exactly sure he wasn't in trouble since practice didn't begin until later Monday. "I like to think we kind of exude mental toughness. We've dealt with a lot of adversity over three years. We'll get faced with more along the way.

"What I do know is we are not flying under the radar anymore. Teams have circled us on their schedules."

Actually, opponents did that a year ago, for different reasons. But defensive coordinator Nick Holt and his defensive assistants are gone. In fact, of the 16 names on the coaching staff, seven experienced their first UW fall practice Monday. New coordinator Justin Wilcox and his fresh crew are engaged in a massive, one-year transformation of the worst defense in UW's football history to . . . what?

Sark listed three virtues his new coaches found in the holdover defensive players: Competitiveness, a higher talent level than anticipated and a desire to do things right. How Holt & Co. messed all that up is unclear, but Sarkisian made the call that it wasn't the players' fault.

"Man, we've got a team where these guys do whatever we ask," he said. "They do it 110 mph and they have a blast doing it. That hasn't changed, and I don't think that will ever change."

Good to hear they had a blast doing it, although it prompts the question as to what does bother these guys. But we'll write off the compliments to coaching hyperbole, which is OK on the first day of practice.

Another thing Sarkisian took particular pride in was that last season Washington played only four freshmen, down from a nation-leading 16 two years earlier.

"I like to think that's the sign of the times of where we are headed," he said. "It's harder for our freshmen to get on the field now than it was before."

On the other end, however, it's harder to keep players on the field for a full career. The  roster lists only 12 seniors, a class caught between Sarkisian and his failed predecessor, Tyrone Willingham. Another class casualty was Chris Polk, one of the greatest running backs in UW history who left early for the NFL.

The upshot is the Huskies have one potentially great player, who occupies the most important position -- junior quarterback Keith Price, upon whom so much rests even my knees ache thinking about it.

Washington's single-season record holder in touchdown passes last year with 33, Price is said to be recovered from the battering his legs took behind an inadequate line. Nearly lost in the Alamo defensive debacle was the fact that Price out-shot Baylor QB Robert Griffin III, the No.1 draft pick in the NFL draft.

Price completed 23 of 37 passes for 438 yards, four passing TDs, three rushing TDs and no picks. RGIII was 24 for 33 for 295 yards, one passing TD and one rushing TD. Granted, the defenses were to college football standards what Putt-Putt is to Augusta National, but still . . .

Almost by himself, Price is good enough to get Washington back to its 7-5 regular season mark of a year ago. Any improvement rests with defensive returnees capable of forgetting the Alamo.

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