Left sighing in the rain, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian summed up Saturday night.
“It was a missed opportunity,” Sarkisian said.
A massive one.
In the bizarro world of 2010 Pac-10 football a win would have left Washington 2-0 in the conference and kicked its record above .500 for the first time since the first dropping of Troy back in September of last year.
Instead, there was regression, rehashing, reluctance, following a 24-14 loss to Arizona State.
Washington is 2-3 with No. 23 Oregon State, which slayed Arizona earlier on Saturday, looming next week. To follow is a trip to No. 17 Arizona, a visit from No. 14 Stanford and a jaunt down I-5 to Autzen to face second-ranked Oregon. Also known as an express route to 2-7.
Last week the Huskies were world-beaters. This week, simply beaten.
Their coach went from genius to second-guessed. Again. Sarkisian is adamant with his aggressive style. Going for it on fourth down after fourth down. On Saturday, he showed he can’t help himself by going for it five times on fourth down.
Here’s the thing: if you provide no quarterback pressure and your defense can’t stop anyone, you need to play conservative on offense once in a while.
A three-yard gain is not a given with this team. When it’s 2nd-and-3, there is no need in the pouring rain to take a downfield shot for fun. When you’re premier tailback carries 18 times for 110 yards, there is no need for him to have his carries limited. There is no aesthetic rating for how you move the ball. You either do or don’t.
Sarkisian revealed after the game that quarterback Jake Locker was sick all week. Locker, who was 23-for-38 for 209 yards passing, ran 11 times for just six net yards. He was not himself. All the more reason to play efficient and conservative in a downpour.
Sarkisian said Locker’s illness altered the way he managed his quarterback. The rollouts or designed runs that were so effective against lumbering USC were not utilized or beneficial against swift Arizona State. In fact, he only called three runs for Locker. The Sun Devils were waiting for them.
“They love to move him because they want to use his legs,” Arizona State safety Max Tabach said. “We knew that. We just had to stay assignment sound really.”
Arizona State is calm like a bomb. It’s a team that will stub its toe without aid. Staying the course — thousand points of light not necessary — would be a prudent call to action against the Sun Devils.
Yet this was the same over-aggressive Washington team. Caught in between during the start of the second quarter, Sarkisian chose to call a fake field goal. Washington placekicker Erik Folk had not missed on the season and his kick would have been from 48 yards out in stout rain and non-present wind. Sarkisian had four options: go for it on 4th-and-18; punt; field-goal attempt; fake field goal. He chose the most cute and most rash.
Cody Bruns, the holder on field goals, was presented with a run/pass option on the fake. He was tackled for no gain. There was no punishment from Arizona State that time.
Later in the second quarter, Washington went for it again on 4th-and-5 from the Arizona State 35. The pass was incomplete. Arizona State went on to score. It was 21-7 and the Huskies were on the ropes prior to the half.
This is what Sarkisian was taught. Mentor Pete Carroll constantly went for it on fourth down inspiring the USC band to break into a chant about the size of Carroll’s reproductive glands.
But this is Washington in 2010. Half the roster played on an 0-12 team. Last season was an improvement, though a sub-.500 one. What worked with five-star recruits playing third string does not work with this roster.
The defense could use the break, as well.
There’s no shame in doing what works. The ground attack is effective. Run with it. It’s not just the design of a play that makes an effective play-caller.