Coach Steve Sarkisian and his team Credit: Photo: Flickr user Neon Tommy
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.
"Y'know, I don't know," he said, ". . . those are self-inflicted wounds that we don't need to do to ourselves. We'll continue to work at it. Again, I've looked at every area and every aspect of this thing, and (it's) one thing that is a little frustrating on our end."
In the third quarter came more bewilderment. With Price out and freshman Cyler Miles in at QB, as well as Ben Riva in as substitute left tackle, Washington had a third-and-short at the Washington 42. Sarkisian called a rare Wildcat play, with RB Bishop Sankey taking the direct snap. UCLA nailed him for a two-yard loss.
Sarkisian decided to go for it on fourth down, electing to have freshman Miles throw to fellow freshman Stringfellow on a slant route in the biggest moment of the game to that point. UCLA had it covered, broke up the play, took over on downs and scored a touchdown on the next play. Talk about a pivot point, right between the eyes.
Sarkisian said the Wildcat play worked earlier in the game with Sankey, and they saw the same defensive look.
"We had a bit of a miscommunication, where we didn’t execute it the way it was executed earlier," he said. "Obviously it was a new quarterback in. it was a new left tackle." Obviously. So why call for an unusual play?
On fourth down, the Huskies saw the man coverage matchups they liked, and the play had three receivers, with the choice left to Miles on the best option.
"Damore’ea was having a fantastic game," he said. "Maybe not (Miles') best throw. There was a little bit of contact and the ball went incomplete. But I think it was a play (where) we gave the quarterback some options to go to the best matchup, and their guy made the play.”
The view here is that with so much on the line on those two plays, and with so much inexperience in the lineup, the nation's No. 3 rusher, Sankey, should have been given the ball either or both times in a manner with the least risk. Sure, it's an easy second-guess, but how difficult would it have been for a first-guess? As he had in earlier situations in his tenure, Sarkisian couldn't resist the impulse to be clever, and the immaturity blew up on him.
But every coach has plays he wants back. Every coach has weaknesses. Sarkisian has done an admirable job of bringing Washington back from the depths, with some splendid wins. Coming back from 0-12 is a harder job that he or most fans want to admit, particularly with UW so far behind in the facilities arms race.
But Husky Stadium has caught up, and the school did it without burdening the taxpayer. Sarkisian deserves the chance to recruit to the improved scene. Besides, coaching churn is a large reason Washington found itself in such a deep ditch. Another change now is ill-advised, particularly since he and his staff have proven to be competent recruiters.
Woodward and his advisors knew five years ago they were taking a chance on a 34-year-old who had never been a head coach at any level. His mistakes of inexperience and immaturity are part of the price. He's not Don James, but no one else is, either.
If fans must have change that they can count on, start a petition drive to get Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott to dedicate 10 percent of his increasing salary to hire service dogs for officiating crews.