It began with the death of the program’s patriarch, Don James. Then Monday, a hunker-day day of meetings to regroup. Now the Huskies are trying to determine if Keith Price is healthy enough to lead them to the end of a three-game losing streak. A unique time, and the crossroads of the season.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE –This is a week like none other for Husky football.
It began with the death of the program’s patriarch, Don James. When the Hall-of-Fame and national-champion coach of the Huskies died Sunday morning at the age of 80 from pancreatic cancer he was eight weeks removed from having spoken to the team in the middle of Husky Stadium before a practice. That was 10 days before the opener against Boise State.
Former UW players from around the world are remembering the “Dawgfather” as not only a champion in football but of life, a molder who set the foundation for two generations of Huskies to succeed far beyond the field.
“Challenging, challenging time for us,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Few of the current players were born when James last coached in 1992. Yet if you feel they are so tunnel-visioned on this season that they haven’t thought about what James meant to their university, to Seattle and to college football, then you don’t know Don James’ impact on UW.
“Absolutely legendary coach,” senior co-captain and safety Sean Parker said following Tuesday’s practice. “I always give respect to those who’ve come before me. He’s built this legacy and this championship demeanor of Washington football. I highly respect Coach James and I’m a huge fan.
“The time he came to talk to us before the Boise game he gave us some words of wisdom. And I think that helped us win that game.”
As in, 38-6, Boise State’s worst loss in 16 years.
This week is also homecoming. A large part of the celebration will be of James’ life: his family members will be honorary game captains for the coin toss, plus there will be video and Husky Band tributes at halftime.
“Coach James set a standard of excellence that is felt here every day,” Sarkisian said.
He became a protégé of James’ after arriving at UW as a first-time head coach in 2009, consulting with him regularly.
“He will be missed,” the current coach said. “He’s made a tremendous impact on a lot of lives here.”
Amid that respect and sorrow, the Huskies didn’t practice on a Monday for the first time this season. Sarkisian felt instead “we needed to regroup. We had lengthy meetings.”
It was the right move. Sarkisian reacted to reading the pulse of a wounded, angry team that needed a day to collect itself.
“Coach James set a standard of excellence that is felt here every day."
Those meetings detailed how Washington must work to end a three-game losing streak that has U-turned a 4-0 start and a No. 15 national ranking, which had been its highest in 10 years. The Dawgs are working through many issues from last weekend’s 29-point loss at Arizona State – namely tackling, pass protection and getting Bishop Sankey, the nation’s leading rusher until 22 yards on 13 carries at ASU, the ball more again.
“We’ve done a lot of soul searching in the last 48 hours,” Sarkisian said Tuesday morning. “We looked at ourselves in the mirror. … This is a mature group that is able to take constructive criticism.”
Amid all that, UW (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) isn’t sure if its third-year starting quarterback will be healthy enough to play Saturday night beginning at 8 p.m. against California (1-6, 0-4).
Keith Price’s three-week-old sore thumb bothered him so much at Arizona State last weekend that he completed just 41 percent of his passes (16 of 39). That was the lowest accuracy in 33 career starts for the UW’s career leader in completion rate (63.4).
Price left the ASU game with 12 minutes left to get X-rays on the thumb that was negative. He vowed that night he will be ready for Cal.
“Keith Price is a tough guy. He is a fighter. And I know he is going to do everything in his power to be out there on Saturday night,” said Sarkisian, a former quarterback at Brigham Young and in the Canadian Football League.
Sarkisian said how a thumb is “pivotal” to gripping and thus properly throwing a ball.
The coach says he needs Price to prove he is healthy enough to make all the throws in the offense during practices this week. If he does not, redshirt freshman Cyler Miles will be making his first career start.
To top it all off, Sarkisian is feeling restating his full culpability for this losing streak, and in particular the baffling performance last weekend in Tempe. He knows Husky fans demand better. He demands it of himself and his program.
Sarkisian did not hesitate before this season to declare 2013 as the time for the Huskies to take “the next step” after three consecutive 7-6 season. As in, the Pac-12 championship game and the Rose Bowl.
And he didn’t hesitate Monday to declare the current state is unacceptable.
“My job here at the University of Washington is to prepare our players to be successful,” Sarkisian said. “And I didn’t get it done Saturday. The buck stops here. We will be better (this) Saturday. We will play harder, faster, more physically Saturday, and we are going to play a really good football game Saturday night.”
The players aren’t spending a lot of time thinking “what-if.” Do that, and UW could wake up Sunday at 4-4.
“It’s just another form of distraction to me. It’s just distracting to think of all that has happened and the ‘would’ves’ and what could have happened had we done things a certain way,” said defensive end and co-captain Hau’oli Kikaha, who leads UW with four sacks. “We can’t worry about that now. It’s already happened.
“Nothing is going to change for us as far as preparation, work ethic and attacking every game.”
“IT’S THE COMEBACK”
The Huskies know you are angry.
“Yeah, and it’s not fun for us,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “We love our fans; it’s as good a fan base as there is out there. We are fighting like hell. And we are going to continue to do that, because that’s what we are about.
“Nobody in our program is OK with what happened.”
The players are angry – but only to a point.
“Of course we are going to think about it. It hurts to lose, every game,” Parker said Tuesday. “But we’ve got to move on.
“It’s the comeback.”
Some fans are angry – without a limit. Maybe a tad irrational, too. One of the many, many enraged comments among the thousands that were on my GoHuskies.com game chat from Arizona State stated at halftime: “gregg give me a reason not to jump off the ledge.”
Here’s one: this team’s leadership.
Parker was as frustrated and mad as any Husky last Saturday inside the visitor’s locker room in the back of Sun Devil Stadium. He had five tackles, one for loss, came up hard from his safety spot to ruin numerous ASU plays and broke up a pass. Yet it wasn’t nearly enough to keep the Sun Devils from putting up their most points on UW in the 31-game series.
But since about halftime last weekend Parker has seized the role of captain he’s been voted by his teammates to be the last two seasons. In the locker room minutes after the ASU game Parker made a point to not sulk; he said he knew his teammates’ heads would stay down if they saw his droop.
“This is a setback. But now we’ve got to get ready for the comeback,” Parker said in a side, interview room down the hall from that silent locker room at ASU.
“I feel embarrassed. But as a captain I can’t hang my head. I’ve got to pick people up.”
So far, it appears to be working.
“Our team is pretty close right now,” starting defensive tackle Evan Hudson said. “We’ve come together to get through it as a team. We aren’t going to point fingers at anybody. We are going to lock up and get through this together, go out there on Saturday and get a W.”
I asked co-captain John Timu if the players have gotten through the surprise of the predicament they find themselves in.
“I don’t know,” the rugged middle linebacker said, “but the attitude on our team is positive right now. Everyone has the mindset of, don’t forget what happened, but we’ve moved on from it. We’ll learn from it.
“And, I tell you what, we’ll get better, much better than we showed last Saturday. And we will show it against Cal.”
Why believe the immediate future is bright?
No Husky fan wants to embrace the following fact; no player or coach does, either, because it’s a condition Sarkisian and his program thought they were past.
This is the third consecutive season the Huskies have lost three in a row.
But: They have won that fourth game by an average of more than 12 points per game. And they are a combined 10-1 with two four-game winning streaks in the block of games following those three-game skids the last three seasons.
“This is a setback. But now we’ve got to get ready for the comeback."
“Sark said it: we’ve been here before. And the way we’ve responded has always been positive for us,” Timu said.
“We’ve got a great team, guys who are experienced, who have been through adversity and now how to bounce back.”
THE PATH TO SALVATION
Beyond mindset and motivation, how are the Huskies to salvage their season?:
- First is what Wilcox said before last week’s game, immediately after it, again on Tuesday – heck, since spring practice: “We have to be able to tackle better. At the end of the day, we have to get guys on the ground.”
The Huskies had live tackling drills for the second Tuesday in a row during their full-pads practice. Tackling, especially in the open field, was the primary reason Washington was leading the conference and among the top 10 in the nation in total defense after four games.
Stanford – and more alarmingly speedy Oregon and Arizona State – exposed bad techniques in tackling such as reaching and not squaring shoulders on ball carries.
- Second, the offensive line must re-assert itself as the controller of games. As great as Sankey has been in two seasons at making improbably sharp cuts at the line and patiently waiting for blocks to develop, his biggest games have, of course, coincided with the line’s best-blocked ones. ASU’s defensive front overwhelmed UW’s line up the middle, leaving no room for Sankey to cut last week.
- Improving the second point will, in turn, improve the third one: Get Price and the passing game back flowing. Price was among the top dozen most-efficient passers in the country through five games. He’s been sacked 10 times in the two games since then, and hit to the ground by my unofficial count 20 additional times. More than just his thumb has been sore from that. That pounding has contributed to his skittish throwing of the last two weeks. It’s been reminiscent of last season when he was besieged on a weekly basis, admittedly lost confidence in his protection and hurried throws even when the rush wasn’t yet to him.
A huge part of Sarkisian’s offense is the fake-run, play-action pass for big gains. Sarkisian said this week he knows he can’t bubble-screen his way down the field against most defenses in the Pac-12. So a return to the offensive line creating space for Sankey to dominate again in the run game will force opponents to again bring safeties closer to the line to stop those rushes – and will make the play-action passes to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams a bigger part of the offense.
A lot to do. And a most unique week in which to do it.
Then when it’s all done Saturday night and they are leaving the stadium after midnight, they will get up Sunday and go to Alaska Airlines Arena for a 3 p.m. public memorial service remembering Coach James. Sarkisian, among others, will speak. One and all are invited.
“I think it is fitting that this weekend is homecoming,” Sarkisian said. “We have an amazing opportunity to celebrate Coach James in a tasteful manner. We will do our best to get that done.”
The best way, of course, is to return to the way that made James a legend forever at Washington.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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