Nov. 7, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Nostalgia and history have surrounded the Huskies for the last week, as Husky Stadium closed and the 1991 national championship team returned.
So it fits that Steve Sarkisian began preparing for Saturday's game at 18th-ranked USC with this, minutes after he put on a hard hat and turned over a ceremonial shovel of dirt to mark the start renovations on UW's 91-year-old stadium Monday morning:
"We're going to try and go down there this week and do something that hasn't been done before since 1937: That's beat USC two times in a row, for Washington on the road at the Coliseum," Washington's coach said an hour before the week's first team meeting.
Sarkisian was selling the rarity short by two years. The last time the Huskies won at USC in consecutive seasons was 1934 and '35. The latter was a 6-2 victory over the Trojans before 23,191 at the then-8-year-old Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which was modeled after Husky Stadium's construction in 1920.
It is indeed a scheduling quirk, Saturday's 12:45 p.m. game on FX television, the Washington IMG College radio network regionally, the Touchdown Radio network nationally and here on GoHuskies.com with another live game chat. This will be just the second time in the last 76 years that the Huskies (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) and Trojans (7-2, 4-2) have played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in consecutive seasons. The only other time was in 1988 and '89, when USC won both.
Sarkisian sees an advantage in this oddity, as his team seeks to rebound from last weekend's emotional and mistake-filled, 34-17 loss to sixth-ranked Oregon, UW's third loss in 13 games. Many of the 34 Huskies from Southern California have already played against USC at the Coliseum now -- including quarterback Keith Price. The native of Compton, Calif., a few miles south of the Coliseum, had never been in the stadium until Oct. 2, 2010.
That night, as a redshirt freshman, Price entered in the fourth quarter of a tight game there with the Trojans. With Jake Locker momentarily woozy and out of the game, Price came in on first and goal and threw a touchdown pass. Locker then returned to lead the game-winning drive that ended with Erik Folk's second game-winning, last-second field goal against USC in as many seasons.
"We've got a bunch of kids from Southern California and the Los Angeles area on our team. There are tickets, families, friends, the hotel, all of that (to do)," said Sarkisian, who is a native of Torrance in the Los Angeles suburbs. "So going down there once and experiencing it and playing pretty well and getting a win, for Keith to get in a game, relaxes some of those issues the second time around.
"Do I think it's ideal that we are going back to the Coliseum for the second year in a row? No. I wish they were playing up at Husky Stadium this year. But you play the hand you are dealt."
This is the 15th time since Sarkisian took over at UW in 2009 that the Huskies are playing a nationally ranked team. They are 5-9 against ranked foes in that span. That includes a 16-13 win over No. 3 USC in September of Sarkisian's first Huskies season, and that 32-31 win at 18th-ranked USC last season, Lane Kiffin's first as the Trojans' head man.
Kiffin and Sarkisian shared an office inside USC's football headquarters a handful of years ago.
"Lane and I are good friends, and we've known each other for years now. We haven't joked about (me) staying undefeated (against SC)," Sarkisian said, with a smile. "But we texted each other in the past 24 hours already and we'll probably continue to throughout the week. It's a healthy friendship and a healthy rivalry." Washington is 0-3 against top-25 teams this season, having lost at Nebraska in September and at Stanford late last month.
"We've been in a lot of big games, if feels like to me, in three years now. We've knocked off five or six top 25 opponents that we've beaten in that time," Sarkisian said. "But unfortunately we have played a lot of them and we've gotten beaten in those games, as well.
"So at this point, I don't think games are too big for our guys. We are used to playing top-25 teams. That seems to happen every other week in this conference -- and here comes another one this Saturday."
Sarkisian was still shaking his head Monday over his offense's performance against No. 6 Oregon. The Huskies, who began the season scoring 30 or more points in their first six games for the first time in school history, had a season-low 17 against the Ducks despite getting into Oregon territory six times.
A season-high six sacks of Price, three turnovers, key dropped passes and missed assignments combined to negate the Huskies' defense holding the Ducks 14 points and 146 yards under their per-game averages.
"We were awful offensively. Didn't perform, for a variety of reasons," Sarkisian said. "And that falls on me as head coach, game-planner, play caller. We've got to be better. We've got to perform better up front. We've got to make better decisions at the quarterback position. We've got to catch the ball. We've got to call better plays. And that falls on me.
"That'll get fixed. And that'll get fixed quickly."
He said the lack of "explosive plays," a signature for Price, running back Chris Polk and the offense this season, was related to the subpar night along the offensive line.
"We were poor, at best, up front. So we'll get it fixed," Sarkisian said. "(Line coach) Danny (Cozzetto) will get it fixed. I'll get it fixed. We'll be much better Saturday night."
Sarkisian was proud of his defense. He said some of the Ducks' big plays - which at times seem inevitable with all the speed they have - came from the Huskies trying too hard, overplaying and over-pursuing runs. Late Saturday night, defensive coordinator Nick Holt thought back to all he had to prepare for against the no-huddle, no-breaks Ducks. He then looked ahead to how well Matt Barkley is throwing in USC's more conventional, pro-style offense and how dynamic Barkley's receivers are. He thought of his familiarity with USC's system and its players. He was, after all, the Trojans' defensive coordinator through the 2009 Rose Bowl.
"We'll be OK against those guys," Holt said of the Trojans. "I'd rather play USC than Oregon, quite honestly."
Seems folks around USC are already getting mileage out of that. Sarkisian, though, knew exactly what the chief of his defense meant.
"I think you could ask every defensive coordinator in our conference the same question and they'd tell you the same thing. Oregon is hard to prepare for because of how unique they are," Sarkisian said. "That doesn't mean that SC is not really good. I think they are a tremendous football team, and I think Nick would agree with that. "The comment was about the preparation of an offensive style. And as we've all seen it now for years since Chip (Kelly) has been at Oregon, they are hard to prepare for. The speed and the tempo in which they play at, it's difficult. "If that quote makes SC play better, then it makes them play better. I don't know. We don't motivate that way here." QUICK HITS: Sarkisian was glowing in his praise for Barkley, whom he helped recruit to USC as its offensive coordinator through the 2008 season. "If I'm an NFL head coach, I'd pick Matt Barkley over Andrew Luck," Sarkisian said. "I think he is playing at that high a level." ... Sarkisian said having legendary coach Don James and the 1991 Huskies around his team last Friday and Saturday was "great. I think if anything residual came out of it, it is that those guys feel welcomed to be around here and that we'd love to have them around. We'll continue to invite them around to be a part of our program."