LOS ANGELES — When he said it, Nick Holt had just watched his Washington defenders shredded by Oregon’s speed and deception. All in all, Washington’s defensive coordinator observed a week ago, he’d rather play USC than the Ducks.
At the time, it seemed understandable, if incendiary for the Trojans. Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum, it looked magnum foolish.
No one really expected the Huskies to beat USC a third consecutive time. But beating themselves too, well, that was piling on.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” said Keith Price, the bewildered Washington quarterback who was was sacked four times, including once for a safety, after being plundered six times against Oregon. “We’re killing ourselves.”
Indeed, the Huskies seem to be breaking apart on offense. Since they never were together on defense, that leaves them as one of the nation’s weakest 6-4 teams, particularly after special teams screw-ups added to the despair in a 40-17 loss Saturday afternoon at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
All losses have been to ranked teams (Nebraska and Stanford as well as Oregon and USC), which somehow doesn’t help when so many mistakes were of the unforced kind. Washington had 12 penalties for 91 lost yards, a bad snap that led to the safety, dropped passes, whiffed tackles and a collapse of containment on the second-half kickoff that led to an 88-yard return for a touchdown.
The variety and timing of the mistakes were spectacular, starting with the first play, when the Huskies thought they spotted something on film that left the Trojans vulnerable to a double pass. But when wide receiver Devin Aguilar cocked his arm to throw after his reception, nothing was open. He was sacked for a two-yard loss and penalized for intentional grounding.
“In this game, you block, tackle and run,” said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian. “We didn’t do any of that.
“It wasn’t for lack of effort. This wasn’t about want-to. It was all about execution.”
And it also might be a lack of physical talent. The Huskies’ early success in getting to 5-1 has been exposed in the last few games as ephemeral. They weren’t strong enough against Stanford, quick enough against Oregon and had neither virtue relative to USC, which could be the best of the Pac-12 lot.
Part of the exposure has revealed the ordinariness of the offensive line. Price has been sacked 10 times in the last two games, including a final one in the third quarter that forced him from the game and brought in backup Nick Montana. Price hurt his right knee and limped off, not long after hurting his left knee in an end-zone sack in the second quarter that created the safety.
As he always says this season after he hobbles out for questions, “I’ll be ready Saturday.” But for a change, he finally admitted that his knee and ankle problems are adding up. He simply is not running assertively.
“You guys can see it — I can’t lie,” he said. It (the injuries) is definitely holding me back a little bit.”
The four-game fall-off will lead inevitably to speculation that it’s time to give him a break and let Montana try. Although it was garbage time — the Trojans scored 16 points in less than five minutes of the second quarter to lock up the game 23-3 at halftime — Montana in relief was 9 of 15 for 73 yards and a touchdown in the fading moments to freshman Kasen Williams (Price was 12 of 16 for 125 yards).
“No, said Sarksian, shaking his head about a quarterback change Saturday. “He’s sore. We don’t think it’s serious. I felt like with where the game was at and what was happening, it was time to put Nick in.”
He was not as certain about changes in the offensive before Saturday’s game in Corvallis against Oregon State. Besides the six sacks, USC held UW tailback Chris Polk to a season low 37 yards on nine carries.
Sarkisian also may have to make some changes on special teams. Besides the kickoff return, the Huskies were also pantsed in the second quarter for a fake punt. Having held USC at midfield and trailing 7-3, the Huskies seemed in good position until punter Kyle Negrete took the snap and bolted 35 yards to a first down at the 20-yard line.
“I haven’t seen green grass like that since high school,” said Negrete, testifying to the complete bollixing of the the Huskies. A touchdown shortly thereafter, followed by the safety, then a short TD drive following UW’s free kick, was all the Trojans needed to deliver payback for the upset defeats to Washington the past two seasons.
Sarkisian was intent on emphasizing the positives about being a bowl team, but it’s impossible to ignore the offensive regression.
“I don’t think the last two weeks, especially on offense, we’ve progressed,” he said. “That’s fair to say. We just haven’t found a rhythm that’s what we’re accustomed to. That’s the biggest disappointment. But the season to me is an entire body of work. I think there’s a lot left out there for us to do.”
The Huskies have lot more to do than now than they did. And they should consider trying to do it without subjecting Price to another beating. The last games against Oregon State and Washington State appear winnable, but the rate of the slide has picked up considerable steam.