Sept. 12, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Think the Huskies are done with their coach challenging them because they answered last week's buck-up?
No way, not with Washington preparing to leave Thursday for Lincoln and Saturday's 12:30 p.m. game at 10th-ranked Nebraska (2-0). It's the first road test of 2011 for UW and its first trip into the Cornhuskers' roaring sea of red since 1998.
Steve Sarkisian made it clear Monday, in the same forum he used to challenge his players seven days earlier: He will not let up on his young team, even though it is 2-0 for just the second time in 10 seasons and on a six-game winning streak overall, tied with Oklahoma and Central Florida for the nation's fourth-longest active one.
"You try to paint a picture. I'm not going to send them in there without them knowing anything about it," said Sarkisian, who coached USC's offense to an 18-point win in 2007 at Nebraska's 81,000-seat Memorial Stadium and calls it a "tremendous environment."
"But the reality of it is part of it is I'm not here to coddle these guys, either. ... We will make sure they are mentally tough enough to handle the environment."
Translation: The heat stays on.
It continued during Monday's fast-paced, 75-minute practice on the east field behind Husky Stadium. The Huskies were relatively healthy for it, with only safety Nate Fellner watching all of it. That was because of a hamstring he pulled in Saturday's 40-32 win over Hawaii.
Washington romped to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter behind quick-strike passing of Keith Price. That satisfied Sarkisian and his staff's demands that the Dawgs play with more energy and physicality following a tentative opening win over Eastern Washington.
But that didn't satisfy Washington's higher standards and expectations this season. Beyond Nebraska, the new Pac-12 season begins next week.
"We're in the thick of it now," Sarkisian said.
He found three issues the Huskies still must conquer to improve:
Getting stops on third downs defensively.
Containing opposing quarterbacks as they try to find receivers.
And closing out games they lead in the fourth quarter with a more physical, effective offense.
"Obviously our ability to finish the fourth quarter (is) something that we've really tried to pride ourselves on, especially last season. We just didn't perform the way I know we're capable of performing in that fourth quarter, on a lot of fronts," Sarkisian said of the Hawaii game. "To close out that ball game offensively, we had two opportunities to do that, and we're unable to do that. That's the second-straight week that's happened, so that will be addressed.
"Third down: If you look at the number of third downs for our defense - gosh, we just have to contain the dang quarterback. That's killing us on third down right now. It's not like we're not there in coverage. But when a guy has the ball and he rolls right, and he rolls back left -- it's hard to cover a guy that long, whether you're in man or zone coverage.
"And that's obviously going to be doubly important this week as much as any, with (speedy Nebraska quarterback Taylor) Martinez."
Oh, yes, UW knows that by now.
This will be a nearly unheard-of third meeting of Huskies and `Huskers in 12 months - after Nebraska's 35-point race past UW in Seattle early last season and then Washington's redemption in December's Holiday Bowl.
Sarkisian praised his Huskies for being plus-five in turnover margin through two games, thanks to the efficiency of Price. He is completing 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and one interception, quelling many concerns caused by Jake Locker's departure for the NFL.
Yet Price says he can be better, especially at reading defenses and at having the Huskies playing at a faster pace.
Winning the turnover battle Saturday would go a long way for Washington's quest for another statement victory in front of a national television audience, this time on ABC.
"We're continually getting better. I don't think it's a fluke that we're on a six-game winning streak right now," Sarkisian said.
"But at the end of the day, we know that that's still not good enough."