Sept. 21, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - They may go down in Huskies lore as the Threads of Change.
"Ever since last year when we were 3-6, I've said it all changed when Coach Sark had those T-shirts made that just said `FINISH!," middle linebacker and co-captain Cort Dennison tells me.
Ah, yes, the T-shirts.
Sarkisian passed out black ones with the edict printed in purple and gold on the front in November, just before Washington played UCLA, California and Washington State to finish last season. And the Huskies did just that, winning all three games and then the Holiday Bowl for their first postseason victory in 10 seasons.
The shirts have proven to be a symbol of change in Husky football, of moving past mere respectability to realizing heightened expectations.
It's not enough to think it or to expect it. Go do it.
"That was a turning point in our program," Dennison said of the T-shirts, which the team wore on the trip to Berkeley for late November's must-win game at Cal, and the results the team has had since getting them.
He would know. Dennison has been to football hell and back as a Husky. The redshirt senior has been at UW for five years, through the 0-12 nightmare of 2008, the coaching change that brought in Sarkisian, his staff and their elevated standards, and now the Huskies' revitalization.
Dennison was talking to me about the "FINISH" turning point Saturday outside Memorial Stadium's visiting locker room in Lincoln. The fact a team captain would bring it up moments after Nebraska beat Washington 51-38 told me that even with the end of their six-game winning streak the Huskies are better off now entering the Pac-12 season than they were before they got to the Land of Corn.
Dennison had ice on his left shoulder and his right leg. He looked stiff and he looked spent from the latest example of the Huskies personifying Sarkisian's T-shirt command.
Washington rallied for 21 points in the final quarter behind quarterback Keith Price, who was limping with two bad knees. They twice cut what had been Nebraska's 44-17 lead to 13 points, giving UW some sense of renewal heading into Saturday's conference opener at home against California.
The grittiness, absent along Montlake for years, is back. The Huskies are personifying those "FINISH" T-shirts. Sarkisian has his other mantra of "EXPECT TO WIN" printed on everything from locker-room walls to travel itineraries. The Dawgs have internalized that message in two-plus seasons playing for him, too.
Sarkisian readily says "we embrace" these elevated standards and expectations. That's why he, defensive coordinator Nick Holt, their players and fans are still grumpy with the way the Cornhuskers ran over UW last weekend.
It fits this still relatively new mindset that running back Chris Polk said immediately following the loss in Nebraska: "I'm still shocked. I'm in disbelief right now," that his Huskies lost.
That attitude is why these Huskies are better off now at 2-1 than they were after they shocked USC to get to 2-1 in 2009, Sarkisian's first season.
It is why they are in a far better place than they were a year ago at this time, when Nebraska beat them last September to leave the 2010 Huskies 1-2 entering conference play.
"It's the end of the first quarter (of the season)," Sarkisian told me Saturday evening outside the locker room at Nebraska. "And we're ahead."
Ahead in many counts. The biggest one: The Huskies are a year deeper into their full buy-in of Sarkisian's championship standards. They believe they are predestined for another bowl game, and eventually for a conference championship.
Now about that defense.
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED
Yes, the defense is allowing an average of 452 yards and 36.6 points per game. And, yes, one of Washington's two wins was an escape past its first-ever opponent from the lower Football Championship Subdivision (former Division I-AA), and that Eastern Washington is now 0-3.
But here's what else we have learned about these Dawgs through three games:
*Starting outside linebacker John Timu is among the 16 Huskies that have made their major-college debuts this month. That inexperience partly explains the game-changing mistakes on special teams - a freshman fumbling a kickoff in his own end zone last weekend -- and the hesitant pass rush.
The good news about such inexperience? There is a high ceiling on those new guys improving rapidly with each quarter they play, let alone each game.
According to Cort Dennison, "it all changed" because of this T-shirt.
"We need to get better. We need to play better. And we will," Holt said.
"But you've got to remember who we are playing with. There are some guys who have never played in a game at very important positions, and they are going to get better. They already have gotten better."
*Rookies or veterans, the defense needs to pressure the quarterback - desperately. A better pass rush is what dramatically improved UW's pass coverage last season, and thus helped produce the four-game winning streak and first bowl win in 10 seasons to end 2010.
The pieces are in place for that pass rush to happen immediately. Actually, they've been in place since the opener. They just have to, well, "finish" their blitzes.
*Just as Sarkisian's T-shirts demand, this team won't quit, no matter what the score, the setting, the conditions or the odds. Price throwing four touchdown passes - two in the final period - while barely being able to walk by the end at Nebraska is proof of that.
"That's our motto: Always compete," Polk said, echoing another credo of Sarkisian's that has soaked into the fabric of the program. "We are not coached to give up."
*Polk is just getting into regular-season form following arthroscopic knee surgery last month. And his offensive line has yet to find the consistency that could spring him for monster games such as the 284 yards he put up in last season's Apple Cup, or the 177 yards rushing he had in the Holiday Bowl. Despite the surgery and the line's so-so play, Polk has three 100-yard games in three starts this season.
*Oh, and Price is dang good.
Back to the most pressing issue. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez last weekend did the same thing Hawaii's Bryant Moniz and Eastern's Bo Levi Mitchell did in the previous weeks: They broke UW's outside defensive containment to either create more time to throw, or in Martinez's case to take off running downfield for first downs.
Washington's pass defense is ranked 115th out of 120 teams in the Bowl Subdivision, allowing 320.3 yards per game. The Huskies have five sacks in 140 pass plays called against them, not counting the times quarterbacks have taken off running on called passes because there was an open lane. That is the reason the Huskies are 108th in overall defense, surrendering 452 total yards per game.
The Huskies had similar issues at the start of last season, when they were allowing 426 total yards per game through three games. The cornerbacks are the same now as then, junior Desmond Trufant and senior Quinton Richardson, with Greg Ducre being added this season as Washington has been in more five-defensive back sets more often against pass-heavy opponents.
The turnaround last season came when rushers off the edge and up the middle began getting to the quarterback more decisively, if not for sacks than to at least force off-target throws -- or to hit a passer hard enough for him to be a little less brazen the next time he dropped to pass.
That hasn't happened much at all yet this season.
Too many times, Huskies pass rushers have come free, unblocked, yet haven't gotten close enough to the quarterback to affect his throw.
"The D-line helps the secondary, and the secondary helps the D-line," said Trufant, who has made plays all over the field this month. "If we have good coverage, they get more time for sacks. If they get good pressure, we get more chances for interceptions or for breaking passes up.
"We just have to work more collectively."
Some are doing that work for the first time. Three of the back seven on the defense are new starters this season: Timu and Princeton Fuimaono at outside linebacker, plus safety Sean Parker.
Sarkisian says his defense needs to "turn it loose," play with more aggression and less hesitation.
"It's the belief in knowing and going," the coach said. "When you know, you can go faster.
"We need more guys, when they're called upon to rush the passer, that's how you have to go. You've got to go full-speed. You can't be hesitant."
Other times, rushers have allowed quarterbacks to gain far too much time to find receivers breaking open. UW's cover guys can't be expected to deny receivers openings for six or more seconds and through multiple changes of direction on a play.
THE `REALLY IMPORTANT' PART OF THE SEASON HAS ARRIVED
The need to pressure and contain continues this weekend against Cal's Zach Maynard. He is far more athletic and potentially damaging than the last Bears quarterback the Huskies faced, static 2010 backup Brock Mansion.
Huskies defenders are paying Maynard the highest compliment you can give a Pac-12 quarterback right now for his quickness, his elusiveness and his ability to make big throws and big plays.
"He's like Keith (Price)," Washington defensive end Hau'oli Jamora said.
Price is turning into a phenomenon after three games. What else do you call a college player who has not one but two hashtags trending on Twitter? Those are #keithprice and #KP4H, by the way.
The sophomore replacement for the departed Jake Locker has 11 touchdown passes, tied with Bowling Green sophomore Matt Schilz for most in the country. And he'll tell you he should have at least 12. He still regrets not throwing the ball higher in the first quarter last weekend to 6-foot-6 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who was one-on-with a Cornhusker deep around the 10-yard line. Price's throw was low and short, into the belly of the defender that had jumped the route underneath.
"He's playing phenomenal football for us right now. He's been lights out," Sarkisian said. "He's managed the game extremely well. His demeanor, his command, his competitiveness -- he's all we ever could have asked for up until this point."
So while Nebraska didn't turn out the way anyone in purple and gold now expects, it was far from a debacle.
And it's only September. The Huskies still have the entire Pac-12 season to improve, to realize their raised expectations.
"We could have laid down, but we didn't. And I am really proud of the guys," Dennison said.
"Yeah, we didn't get the win. But we have to move forward and realize this is a really important part of the season now, the Pac-12 season.
"I'm excited to see how we play."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of 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.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.