The Huskies football program is at the traditional season precipice under coach Steve Sarkisian.
Washington has its traditional three-game losing streak. The Montlake landscape is littered with Sarkisian's traditional introspective, soul-searching quotes:
“It truly tests your character and resolve.”
“These moments are life-changing experiences.”
“The players want to do what we ask, to the best of their ability.”
“We had a fantastic team meeting.”
And the traditional goal, despite a 52-17 cactus-whipping by Arizona Saturday, remains there for the taking:
A 6-6 mediocrity that’s good enough for a bowl.
The Huskies can even lose at home Saturday night to seventh-ranked Oregon State as well as the following week at Cal, fall to 3-6 and still make do, because the three worst teams in the Pac-12 Conference are the final three opponents on the UW schedule.
As is often the case in college football, it gives pause to wonder how bad a team has to be to avoid the magic of the Vegetative State Bowl, or whatever. But since the Huskies were bowl-free for seven years in a row recently, they are exceedingly knowledgeable on the topic.
These Huskies aren’t THAT bad.
Aren’t that good, either. Especially when one considers that in the last six Pac-12 road games plus the Alamo Bowl, the Huskies have given up an average of 50 points a game -- or about 20-some points less than the men’s basketball team allows.
At his weekly presser Monday, Sarkisian was almost plaintive in his search for what will engage a team from which more was expected.
“They’re better than the way they’re playing,,” he said. “We (coaches) want them to maximize their potential. When we do, we’ll be pretty good.
“We just haven’t found the right formula.”
Sarkisian was quick to put the onus for the desert debacle on the coaching staff. Which is fine, as long as it is remembered that such talk is coach-speak for, “We don’t have enough good players,” something that coaches publicly say at risk of their jobs (see Willingham, Tyrone; Wulff, Paul).
“I thought we had a good plan in all three phases; obviously it wasn't a good one,” he said. “We generally got beat in all three phases. We didn't execute the way we thought, so obviously it wasn't a good game plan. We have to do a better job of that.”
In his three-plus years, Sarkisian has proven adept at creating clever game plans. His disingenuousness is simply protective cover for a number of players who are bewildered or over-matched.
In the bewildered category is Keith Price, the junior quarterback who has clearly lost the mojo from stellar sophomore season. Graduation, injuries and lack of talent among his remaining teammates has cost the Huskies a lot on offense, and Price flat-out can’t get over it.
Asked how Price’s trust in his teammates and Sarkisian's play-calling could have evaporated, Sarkisian said, "I don't know if it evaporated. It's lessened. I think we went through a run about the midpoint of last season that it wasn't great, either, you know. Yet we found a way to re-energize it and close out the season really well.”
Point taken. The Huskies have had three-game conference losing streaks in each of his three seasons, and finished out the league slates a collective 6-1. Last season, the Huskies lost to Oregon, USC and Oregon State by a collective 112-55, and won the Apple Cup 38-21 to become bowl eligible.
In 2010, they were a cumulative 138-30 in defeats to Arizona, Stanford and Oregon, yet won the final three to reach the Holiday Bowl.
But history has little bearing on the roster mess made this year mostly by injuries. It’s clear that Price doesn’t trust receivers beyond Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and misses senior James Johnson and junior Kevin Smith, both apparently out for the year with injuries.
“I think we've dealt with some things on our roster that could have potentially started that trust to diminish in what's going on around (Price),” was how Sarkisian put it. “You can be late with the ball; the rush can get there because you are holding onto the ball longer; the windows close faster, so throws that shouldn't be contested become more contested. Your ability to trust in your playmakers to make plays isn't quite as high. You don't throw the ball with the same amount of zip and velocity and conviction that you had in the past.
“When you add all that up, that's not great. So I'd like to think we can get a game plan together this week for Keith, one that he believes in . . . I believe in the way I coach that position. I believe in Keith's ability to play that position. And we'll get it back. I just want to get it back sooner rather than later."
That’s a lot of belief flying around, but it’s all that Sarkisian has to work with in a largely broken season. The purple legions grow restless because by Sarkisian’s own reckoning, 2012 was marketed as “take the next step.” Forward, he meant. But at the moment, a sidestep can be managed through the balance of the schedule. Beats backward.
But in the ruthless world of big-time college football, even a side-step is regularly considered a mis-step. A lot of Huskies fans with long memories are having a hard time with the fact that Oregon State, one of the most misbegotten football programs for decades, is unbeaten this late for the first time since 1907 and a five-point favorite in Seattle against Washington.
Sarkisian has been here with the Huskies before. This time, however, it’s the fourth year of being mediocre, when another loss Saturday gives a different meaning to one of his phrases, “life-changing experiences.”
As he also said: Sooner than later.