UW will honor Don James’ life and impact Saturday night when the Huskies (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) host California (1-6, 0-4) at 8 p.m. It will cap an intense week in which the Dawgs have looked deep within themselves. “It’s all about us,” Sarkisian says.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – This week Huskies have been “soul searching,” to use the words of their coach.
They have looked so deeply inward that it wouldn’t matter if they were playing the California Golden Bears or the Chicago Bears. Their focus would be the same.
“It’s not about Cal,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said tersely on Thursday, the one and only time this week he’s been asked publically about the opponent for the Huskies (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) on homecoming night Saturday beginning at 8 p.m. at Husky Stadium.
“This is not about Cal. It’s all about us.”
The Huskies spent Sunday studying what went wrong in last week’s 29-point loss at Arizona State, their third consecutive defeat. They spent Monday in regrouping in what Sarkisian described as “lengthy” meetings. They spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in spirited practices that included live tackling and was salty on both sides of the ball.
“It’s more intense,” senior defensive end and co-captain Hau’oli Kikaha said Tuesday of this week’s practices.
“We’ve challenged everybody,” Sarkisian said when asked specifically about his offensive line, after Keith Price was sacked six times and hit about twice as many more times than that at ASU.
“They weren’t the only ones who made mistakes last Saturday, so we challenged everybody.”
This challenge to rebound will come on a night when UW remembers Don James before the game and at halftime. The Huskies’ Hall of Fame coach from 1975-92 who won a national championship in 1991 died Sunday at age 80 from pancreatic cancer. The first 50,000 fans entering Husky Stadium (63,500 tickets had been distributed for the game as of Thursday) will receive a purple-and-gold “DJ” pin. For the rest of this season, Huskies players will wear a “DJ” patch on their helmets and coaches will wear the same patch on the sidelines. Cal is showing utmost class by also wearing a “DJ” decal on its helmets for Saturday’s game.
James’ wife Carol, their three children and their 10 grandchildren will be on the field as honorary captains for the coin toss. At halftime, a video tribute to James will play on stadium’s giant board, and the Husky Band will play a tribute for the “Dawgfather.”
“Challenging, challenging time for us,” Sarkisian said.
In more ways than one.
UW’s Keys To Beating Cal
1. Get back to Bishop: Cal’s defense is ranked 121st out of 123 FBS teams overall and dead last in the nation in pass defense. But before the Huskies can air it out on the Bears – and to reduce additional hits to banged-up quarterback Keith Price -- they need to reestablish Bishop Sankey’s running game. He was the nation’s leading rusher until he got just 13 carries and 22 yards last week at Arizona State. Cal’s defensive ends are 50-plus pounds lighter than UW’s offensive tackles, so expect coach Steve Sarkisian to send Sankey off tackle early and often. That would set up the play-action passing in which Price gets most of his big plays through the air.
2. Bear ‘Rasslin: As in, bring Cal to the ground. After five games of mostly sure tackling, the Huskies’ defense blew 20 tackles and allowed 190 yards after contact last week while surrendering 53 points at ASU. “No matter what defense you are in, if you don’t bring them to the ground it doesn’t matter,” Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. He called this week a “gut check” for his guys to tackle better, and they went live at it again in a Tuesday practice. If you see Bears fall immediately upon contact, UW will be on its way back to playing the right way on defense.
3. Leave no doubt: Cal is an injured, young and fragile team. It hasn’t announced which of their two freshman quarterbacks will start. There is uncertainty on both sides of the ball. The Huskies can keep the Bears down by starting fast and burying any hope Cal might have that UW is still dwelling on its previous three games.
Price didn’t throw or fully participate in a practice this week until Thursday, as he prepared backup Cyler Miles just in case. Price left the Arizona State game with 12 minutes remaining to get X-rays on the banged thumb on his throwing hand, an injury he’s had since midway through the Stanford game three weeks ago. Sarkisian said Price looked “really good” in that Thursday practice test and that “I’d be surprised if he doesn’t play” against Cal.
The third-year starter, UW’s career leader with a 64.3-percent completion rate, has been sacked 10 times in the last two games. He’s been hit to the ground at least 15 other times in the losses to Oregon and Arizona State.
Fixing the pass-protection issue would go a long way to Washington ending its losing streak, which has U-turned the Huskies’ best start in a dozen years and a No. 15 national ranking this month.
“We definitely took it to heart,” center Mike Criste said of the pressure ASU’s defense brought by flooding the interior of UW’s line. “It didn’t reflect our level of play. It was definitely a hard thing to watch on film. It was a hard thing to see.”
Erik Kohler is likely to start his second consecutive game, with left guard Dexter Charles still limited by a shoulder injury he got two weeks ago against Oregon. James Atoe, who played early and often at guard last week at ASU, may be in again this week in the line’s first shuffling of this season.
Price played through sore knees while Washington allowed 38 sacks in 13 games last season. He said his offensive linemen shouldn’t take all the blame for the most recent pressure.
“Guys were coming up to me apologizing. I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve been there before,’” Price said.
“It’s not all on them. I remember I had a post route wide open (last week at ASU) and I dropped my eyes and took a sack.”
There may be more open receivers this week.
Cal’s defense is young and has been beset by injuries. It is ranked 121st among 123 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision allowing 525.4 yards per game. The Golden Bears are ranked last in the country in pass defense, surrendering 346.7 yards per game through the air.
The best way for UW to get back the offensive rhythm that had it had when it was ranked in the top eight in the country entering this month is by running Bishop Sankey more. Sarkisian acknowledged the 13 carries by Sankey, the nation’s leading rusher entering last week, “is not enough.” When Sankey is rolling, the play-action passes down the field to Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Kevin Smith and other receivers work best.
Expect Sankey to run off tackle a lot at Cal’s four-man defensive line. The Bears have a pair of 315-pound defensive tackles inside (Deandre Coleman from Seattle’s Garfield High School and Viliami Moala) but are 50-plus pound lighter than UW’s offensive tackles at the two defensive-end spots.
Defensively, the Huskies’ front is in a foul mood after getting almost no pressure on the quarterback, getting out of its run gaps and not tackling well last week.
“Tackling was a big thing. Just finishing plays,” Kikaha said. “Just a major focus on those things.”
The Dawgs will be anxious to get after either of Cal’s two freshman quarterbacks. As of Friday, first-year coach Sonny Dykes hadn’t announced whether Jared Goff or Zach Kline would start Saturday; the Bears’ official depth chart for the game lists the starter as Goff or Kline.
Goff set a Cal record with 504 yards passing against Washington State this month. But Dykes benched him for Kline a week later at UCLA when Goff committed three turnovers.
Then again, as Sarkisian said, “It’s not about Cal.
“It’s all about us.”