No, I don't think Steve Sarkisian should be fired, even if the Huskies lose Saturday at Oregon State. But if he loses the Apple Cup for a second year in a row, he will leave himself open to the dark forces of college football over which even his patron, Washington athletics director Scott Woodward, has no control. And the issue of control is at the heart of Sarkisian's coaching future: Can he control his game-day team? Can he even control himself?
Both matters were exposed Friday in Los Angeles, where the 41-31 loss to UCLA was a significant setback in Sarkisian's argument that the Huskies (6-4) are taking the next step. In his weekly presser Monday, Sarkisian was quick to point out, unprompted, that the Huskies' four losses have been to teams ranked in the polls' top 20.
That was as obvious to fans as the need for Washington to win at least one of those games, something the Huskies did a year ago against Stanford, to demonstrate progress. Wins over OSU and WSU will not move that needle, but a loss in either will complicate his coaching life.
Against UCLA, a couple of his biggest play-calling decisions, as well as the continuing plague of penalties, showed he and his team have not mastered the art of the big-time game.
Sarkisian made the point himself when he talked about the Huskies' inability to rescue themselves from their own mistakes, which could have meant victories against either Stanford or UCLA.
"When you play good teams and make mistakes, good teams capitalize on it," he said. "We're not in a mold yet to handle making mistakes and always being able to overcome those mistakes. We need to go out and play a good, clean football game. When we do, we're pretty good. That's the goal for Saturday night."
After five years, an inability to overcome mistakes is not a sign of progress, especially with a fifth-year senior quarterback. Nor is leading the FBS nation in penalties with 89. Another 11 flags Friday pushed the season total to 793 yards — think of it as about a game-and-a-half worth of lost ground — to make the Huskies No. 1 in something.
Yes, there is a mitigating circumstance: Pac-12 Conference officiating. It is fair for anyone who has watched a game to ask whether conference football officials were also tasked, as their day jobs, with the launch of the Affordable Care Act. It's not just bad calls, it's the frequency of fouls that is puzzling too. After Washington, UCLA is No. 2 nationally with 88, and Cal, Oregon and USC are in the top 10.
Another ghastly example of failure was in the second quarter Friday, when Huskies OG Dexter Charles was charged with a personal foul for hands to the face of a defender. Replays made it plain that it never occurred. But the judgment call is not subject to review despite the fact that the foul occurred during a 38-yard touchdown pass from QB Keith Price to WR Damore'ea Stringfellow. The potential game-changing scoring drive was converted into a punt.
Even the Pac-12 saw the foul as sufficiently ludicrous to acknowledge the error and apologize to Sarkisian.
"It’s tough, because we already get penalized a lot," Sarkisian said. "We get a lot of penalties and probably the majority of those, deservedly so. When you get one that isn’t, and not only is it not a penalty, it takes seven points off the board for you in a critical ballgame, it’s hard.
Coach Steve Sarkisian and his team (2012)/Photo by Neon Tommy/Flickr
Sarkisian always says the right words days after the injustice, but the impact in the moment is what counts. As does the week's preparation in preventing penalties. Asked why the message isn't getting across, Sarkisian sounded bewildered.
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