Playing the dashing Ducks Saturday was bewildering enough without having to pack around everyone’s expectations. The atmosphere surrounding the stadium’s closure, senior night and the presence of Don James and the 1991 co-national championship team should properly have been ignored by players — if they were 35-year-old NFL veterans.
It was enough that every one of the Huskies always had their hats handed them by Oregon. Defeats by an average of 27 points have a way of creeping into the dark place in the soul where players rarely go, especially when they’ve already been beaten soundly twice this season by teams of Oregon’s caliber.
“Yes, in a sense, for everybody involved and for what it meant to the Husky fans and the ex-players and coaches and Husky Stadium,” he said. “Every game you want to go out and play well, but I wanted to perform well (in this game) . The stadium was tremendous, the electricity in the air was just awesome.
“It’s what you love about college football. I wish we just would have played better. Even though we weren’t playing well, it’s still 24-17 in the middle of the third quarter. It’s a ball game and we just couldn’t get right.”
He’s correct. And it’s a shame for them. Even Sarkisian was wrapped around the axle of the setting. The game was winnable, but the emotions were unmanageable.
Nearly all game, the Huskies couldn’t get right. Quarterback Keith Price was over-amped: “I had too much emotion,” he said Monday. The offensive line was making mistakes they hadn’t made since early in the season. Receivers dropped catchable balls. The defense played better than it has, but Sarkisian said too many tried to do too much. And special teams surrendered way too much of the field.
Sarkisian admitted that even his playcalling grew timid after Price was intercepted on Washington’s first possession.
“I think I got a bit tentative myself,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to protect this guy to get his confidence built back up.’ And in turn, it took away a facet of our offense — our ability to throw it down the field, to tax them not just horizontally but vertically. And it had an impact on the game. They were really able to sit on some things underneath, which made it difficult.”
Add it up and there is one conclusion available: The Oregon game was too big for this version of the Huskies. That sounds bad, but given how far and how fast UW has come since 0-12, it’s hardly a sin.
I am not fond of repeating Sarkisian’s season-long mountain-climbing analogy, but it has a corollary: Sometimes conditions dictate a return to the lodge. Doesn’t mean a retreat as much as a pursuit of another route on another day.
Naturally, Sarkisian wasn’t having such talk.
“I don’t think games are too big for our guys,” he said. “We are used to playing top-25 teams. That seems to happen every other week in this conference. And here comes another one this Saturday.”
But unlike Oregon, this one is against a team the Huskies can manage. Not only is the match free of the pressurized trappings of Saturday, USC, under Sarkisian’s longtime friend, Lane Kiffin, plays a style familiar to UW — and beatable, as evidenced by the two-game winning streak over the Trojans. That isn’t to say Washington is without hope against Oregon’s athletes and spread-option offense — but after eight defeats in a row, it’s close.
That was the point of defensive coordinator Nick Holt’s remark Saturday: “To be honest, we’d rather play USC than Oregon.” A Los Angeles reporter quizzing Sarkisian Monday said that that quote is already posted in prominent places in Heritage Hall, the USC athletic bastion.
Sarkisian offered full defense of Holt’s candor.
“I think you could ask every defensive coordinator in our conference the same question and they’d tell you the same thing — Oregon is hard to prepare for because of how unique they are,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that SC is not really good. I think they are a tremendous football team, and I think Nick would agree with that.
“The comment was about the preparation of an offensive style. The speed and the tempo at which they play, it’s difficult. If that quote makes SC play better, than it makes them play better. I don’t know. We don’t motivate that way here.”
However the Huskies choose to motivate themselves this week, it won’t involve old stadiums, coaches, players and departing seniors. And it doesn’t involve the Ducks. Doesn’t mean they’ll win, but the event is far less a worship of shrines and demi-gods and more of a business trip with nice weather.
The Huskies have a year in the lodge to think about the Ducks.