Transformed, 'Lunch-Pail' Huskies End Home Season
Nov. 9, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Wait, was it really just 11 months ago?
Did Washington really go pinball with Baylor last December in an astounding, 67-56 Alamo Bowl that broke national records for points and yards, plus the seven total touchdowns quarterback Keith Price scored while outplaying Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III?
No way, not these Huskies. Not the ones now grinding out wins Woody Hayes would be proud of. With defense. With an offense that has gone from supersonic to three yards and a cloud of rubber artificial turf particles.
A 21-13 win at California that "featured" eight turnovers last week was as low on aesthetics as that Alamo Bowl was high on amazement. These relative junkyard Dawgs haven't scored more than 21 points against a Football Bowl Subdivision team since that Alamodome night for the ages last Dec. 30.
So what. On Saturday night, Washington goes for a third straight win. It has a shot at an 8-4 season and third consecutive bowl game while playing what the NCAA says has been the second-toughest schedule in the land.
Ultimately, the only style points that matter dangle from the win-loss record.
"I'd much rather win ugly than lose pretty," supposedly free-wheeling coach Steve Sarkisian said entering the home final for his Huskies (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) against Utah (4-5, 2-4) at CenturyLink Field.
"I like where we are as a team. ... We are a black-and-blue team. We are kind of your old meat-and-potatoes, lunch-pail, hard-hat kind of team. And that's fine. I love being that way. I think our guys have embraced that mentality.
"And that's just the way we play."
This season, it's the way they've had to play.
A shuffled, injured offensive line with four first-year starters is putting out the same five blockers at the same spots over consecutive weeks for the first time this month. Consistent issues in protection have forced Price to run for his life and often throw the ball away to the sidelines on any pass plays but one-step drops and bubble screens outside.
Yet the O-line has developed a bonding and consistency through run blocking, with Bishop Sankey averaging 95 yards rushing per game behind it. He's coming off a career-best 189 yards and two scores last week.
On defense, new coordinator Justin Wilcox has junked the 2011 schemes that had the Huskies dropping deep, letting offenses run and complete passes in front of them and waiting for an opponent's mistakes. Wilcox's Dawgs now attack the line of scrimmage, bang receivers off their routes, make far more plays on the ball and basically dare teams to beat it deep.
This complete 180 in style and persona should come in handy Saturday night.
When it is going at its best Utah uses its big, bullying defensive line with 6-foot-4, 320-plus-pound tackle Star Lotulelei, a semifinalist for the national defensive player of the year award, to control games. The Utes' offense lost starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a career-ending injury after two starts, leaving true freshman Travis Wilson relying mostly on John White and the running game.
Utah's one, explosive departure from the defense-and-running-game recipe is game-breaking kickoff returner Reggie Dunn. He has a national-record four 100-yard kickoff returns in his career. Three have come this season - including an NCAA record-setting two last month in a 49-27 win over Cal that started the Utes' current, two-game winning streak.
"I've known Reggie now for about eight years. I've known him since he was a little squirt running around at Verbum Dei High School (in Los Angeles)," said Sarkisian, the former USC coordinator who constantly scours his native region for recruits.
"Reggie has always been explosive. ... We are very aware of it."
So these new, more smash-mouth Huskies will be playing Utah's game Saturday.
That isn't the only weird twist to Senior Night.
This is no true finale for the 11 Huskies that will be honored before the game, walking out of the tunnel with family members at their sides. Washington has regular-season games at Colorado next week and at Washington State in the Apple Cup the day after Thanksgiving still to play - plus another, expected bowl game next month.
Sentimentality has taken a back seat to securing more victories.
"I will probably reflect after the game, because right now I am just focused on winning," said safety Justin Glenn.
He is one of five fifth-year seniors who have been at UW since the winless 2008 that seems like a century ago now.
"I'm not really worried about all that (ceremonial aspect)," he said. "We'll run out and it will be cool. It will be exciting. But at the same time I'm just trying to get to this next victory so we can keep this going."
Sarkisian acknowledges his Huskies are far from a complete team. His offense is firing on about one-third of its cylinders. His in-game playbook remains truncated because Price usually isn't getting enough time to throw deep off play-action to Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
And the run defense sometimes disappears for mysterious stretches, something Utah's varied running plays out of shotgun and more conventional formations will test.
"Each year takes on its own identity," Sarkisian said Thursday, chuckling over the difference in 11 months since that zany Alamo Bowl. "The idea that we are a hard-hat, lunch-pail type of team? Sure, that's something I want us to have - forever. I'd much rather be that than a finesse team."
"I'm hopeful here in the last month that we can become more of a complete team. And I think we can be. But ultimately we have to put that on the field. We can't keep talking about it."
For now? Embrace the necessary transformation.
"If we are going to be something - if that means we are going to be a hard-nosed team that plays good defense and runs the football - I'd much rather be that than the other day around," Sarkisian said.
"Because like I said before, I'd much rather win ugly than lose pretty."