Sarkisian's Dawgs Open With No. 11 LSU Tigers
Sept. 5, 2009
By GREGG BELL
SEATTLE -- New Washington coach Steve Sarkisian had to laugh when he saw the first game on the Huskies' schedule.
Not only did his new athletic director provide a challenging debut, Sarkisian will experience something he never did in his years as an assistant at Southern California.
"I kind of got the chuckle because, for me, coming from 'SC, there was always banter among the fans about 'SC and LSU should've been playing, (from) years ago when we kind of split the national title," Sarkisian said.
"I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm getting my chance now.'"
Sarkisian and his Huskies begin a new era at home Saturday night as a huge underdog to No. 11 Louisiana State.
LSU is 18 months removed from winning a national championship. Tigers fans have swarmed into Seattle, showing up as early as Wednesday on the longest road trip in the history of LSU football, 2,550 miles. Almost 15,000 LSU fans are expected inside Husky Stadium for the nationally televised opener for both teams.
And the players are just as eager as their fans. This is an angry bunch of Bengal Tigers following an embarrassing five-loss season in 2008.
"It's been a long time coming," said left tackle Ciron Black, who will make his 41st consecutive start for LSU. "I've been saying it all week, I've been saying it ever since January 1: I just want to show everybody how we play football. Last year, it's just not us, it's not how we play.
Of course, embarrassment is relative.
Washington is coming off the first 0-12 season in Pac-10 history. The Huskies have lost 14 consecutive games, the last games in the dreadful tenure of fired coach Tyrone Willingham. It's two short of the Pac-10 record for futility. And they expect to play six true freshman Saturday.
"They had a horrible season. We had a horrible season as well last year," LSU running back Keiland Williams said. "So I think you'll just definitely see two teams out there just hungry, trying to earn everybody's respect back. ... We're definitely anxious."
Washington's anxiety wasn't supposed to be this high this soon. The opener was supposed to be at home against Nevada, followed by another game against Idaho. But about 18 months ago Nevada backed out, leaving the Huskies scrambling.
Then Verge Ausberry, a senior associate athletic director at LSU, called an old friend. Washington athletic director Woodward was born in Baton Rouge, graduated from LSU and was the director of external affairs there before moving to Washington.
Soon the Tigers were coming for their first trip to the West Coast since 1984. The Huskies go to Death Valley in 2012.
Convenient, but not exactly the way to jump-start a former power and the tenure of a new coach.
"People with concerns say, 'Hey, shouldn't you have opened up with a lesser opponent?' I understand those," Woodward said.
Then he mentions another friend, Nick Saban. Alabama's current head man was LSU's coach when Woodward was there. Woodward remembers how Saban, in the same situation at Michigan State as Sarkisian is now at Washington, opened at home in 1995 against No. 2 Nebraska - and lost 50-10.
"He got beat, but he says (the) team learned a lot from it and got better, and played in a bowl that year," Woodward said.
Now Sarkisian's Huskies get a faster, more athletic LSU team led by sophomore QB Jordan Jefferson. He is running the Tigers' offense after emerging late last season. And running is the operative term - LSU returns the players responsible for 93 percent of its rushing yardage in 2008.
"I'm ready to run power," Black said. "I'm ready to run zone right up the middle. Just show them how we play football, man."
Nothing silences 70,000 roaring fans starved for an upset or demoralizes a fired-up underdog like a pounding running game. And "Chuck the Truck" is the man for the job.
Senior Charles Scott rushed for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns - second in school history - last season. He'll be facing a Huskies' defense that returns eight starters from last season, when it allowed 241 yards rushing per game.
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis came from Tennessee to fix a unit that allowed more than 24 points and 325 yards per game last season. His new schemes will be tested by Jake Locker, Washington's dynamic junior quarterback who had last season ruined by a broken thumb in September.
Locker will try to keep the Huskies in the game with his powerful running and supposedly improved passing in Sarkisian's new, prostyle offense modeled after USC's.
"Obviously this is a great metered gauge for us to where we're at as a program, to see how far we stack up with a team that is a perennial top-10 team," Sarkisian said. "I think we're embracing the challenge more than, 'Oh, whoa is me.'"