Nov. 23, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Steve Sarkisian and his Huskies built this.
The coach and his driven players raised expectations in 2010 by becoming the 12th of 74 teams in the last half century to reach a bowl game within two years of a winless season.
Asked about the higher expectations for 2011 back in January, a couple weeks after the Washington beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl for UW's first bowl victory since 2001, Sarkisian said: "I'm not concerned about rising expectations. That's natural as you win."
That's why the Huskies were so frustrated last weekend at Oregon State.
The standards are like the expectations: Higher now.
Yet a Huskies win in Saturday's Apple Cup against Washington State would give Washington a 7-5 regular season. That would be the third improvement in Sarkisian's three regular seasons on Montlake.
That would also be the first time since 1989-91 - the run-up to and through the Dawgs' national championship under Don James- that UW has increased its win total in three consecutive regular seasons.
It's light years from 0-12 in 2008.
And no matter what happens when quarterback Keith Price returns to the starting lineup Saturday beginning at 4:30 p.m. at CenturyLink Field, Washington is going to its second consecutive bowl next month. The Huskies are the eighth team in the country since 1960 to make two bowl games within three years of a winless season.
"We're excited about the fact that as a team that come Saturday, hopefully around 8 o'clock, we finish our third regular season together with the best record we've had in three years together," Sarkisian said. "To go from 5-7 to 6-6 and then ultimately 7-5 in year three is an exciting prospect for us, and I know it's one our guys are really trying to get done."
Yes, this 104th Apple Cup is the Huskies' chance for renewal. Tuesday night's practice on the east field next to the cranes and bulldozers renovating Husky Stadium was as spirited as Washington has had in weeks. The Dawgs banged into each other for two hours despite a drenching rain that reminded all on the field how, uh ... unique it is to be a Husky.
"We've had a tough couple weeks. It just feels good going into the Apple Cup with a fresh start," said tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who grew up watching the Apple Cup in Gig Harbor, Wash.
The Huskies are one of only eight teams since 1960 to qualify for two bowl games within three seasons of going winless. They are one of only five teams from a Bowl Championship Series conference to do it in the last half century.
"This is a big game for us, a fun game for us. It's a rivalry game. Everyone is really excited about it. You could see at practice. Everyone was amped up and everyone was running around. I feel like everyone's got fresh legs and are all really excited about it."
This season has been a reminder that transformations from winless to wondrous don't happen overnight, that it takes three and four and perhaps more recruiting classes to compete for championships.
It was hard to remember during this season's 5-1 start and national ranking, but the Huskies have a first-time starting quarterback. They've had a redshirt freshman starting on the offensive line (now-injured Colin Tanigawa). They've had true freshmen starting at tight end (Seferian-Jenkins) and at wide receiver (Kasen Williams). They've had six first-time starters on defense: Josh Shirley, Princeton Fuimaono, John Timu, Will Shamburger, Sean Parker, and Greg Ducre.
The Huskies foreshadowed their inconsistent 2011 with an escape past lower-division Eastern Washington in the opener. Eventually, the Huskies rebounded and soared to that 5-1 start with Price throwing 21 touchdowns against just four interceptions to begin the season. The only early loss was because of one flubbed quarter at Nebraska in mid-September.
Then came Stanford, Oregon, Arizona and USC. The class of the Pac-12 surrounded a shootout win over the Wildcats, when Chris Polk scored five touchdowns and the defense forced four turnovers.
The higher expectations and higher standards are why the last two losses have been so frustrating. As defensive coordinator Nick Holt told me outside the Los Angeles Coliseum moments after USC beat UW two weeks ago, "It's disappointing. It shouldn't be 40-17, you know what I'm saying?"
This week, Sarkisian is focusing on doing what his players do best, be that through simplifying schemes or relying on favorite plays or handing off to Polk, who romped for 294 yards last December at Washington State.
Whatever to restore the Huskies' confidence.
"We have to continue to strive to put these guys in a position to be successful, and for them to know that they are going to be successful. And that's my challenge," Sarkisian said. "We've got to get that right this week.
"We just want to make sure we are giving our players the best chance to play fast and furious football. ...That is something we are definitely looking at this week. Just to ensure the fact that we are allowing our players to be as athletic as fast as physical as they can be, when know they are right (in their assignments)."
It's a constant process, this building of confidence and molding of mindsets in a new program. It's what Sarkisian and his staff have been doing, why they've been preaching "Expect to Win" and "Finish," since the day they arrived in January 2009.
As this up-and-down season shows, consistency on Saturdays is often a later stage of that rebuilding process. Especially when some of the key guys doing the rebuilding are still teenagers.
"We've been on a psychological warpath here since the first day I took this job. And I don't think it's ever going to change, quite honestly," Sarkisian said this week. "That's just the nature of dealing with 18- to 22-year-old young men that have a lot going on in their worlds -- a lot more than just blocking, tackling, running, and catching.
"It's the challenge of finding a balancing act in their life, so that we can focus on the tasks at hand -- as well as in believing in what they are doing, believing in themselves. ... That psychological approach, for me anyway, from Mondays until we take the field every Saturday, is ongoing. I don't think that will ever change."
And making two bowls in the first three years while doing all that?
Now that's progress.
Maybe these Huskies aren't so far off, after all.