For its first road game in the Southeastern Conference in 29 years, the University of Washington football team gets to visit top-ranked Louisiana State short-handed. This is more than going into a gunfight with a knife. This is going into Russian winter in thongs.
Sophomore starting tackle right Ben Riva will miss the game and beyond with a forearm broken Saturday against San Diego State, an injury absence that was expected. But coach Steve Sarkisian at his Monday press conference delivered the bad news that RB Jesse Callier, who had two catches Saturday, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and will be lost for the season.
The same ACL injury befell starting DE Hau’oli Jamora in training camp, and he underwent surgery Thursday. A junior who already has used his redshirt year on a previous injury, Jamora is also lost for the season.
It’s hard to know whether the loss of Riva or Callier, which happened without contact, is worse, given how shallow the Huskies are at their positions. Sophomore Bishop Sankey, who carried 22 times for 66 yards and lost a fumble Saturday, will be the lone experienced performer at running back. Given the power of the LSU front seven and anticipated 90-degree heat, much more is needed.
“Were going to find out more about Bishop Sankey in a hurry,” Sarkisian said. “He can do it. Physically he was fine Saturday. It was a good learning experience for him, putting the ball on ground. He’ll respond to that better. He ran a little conservatively after the (second-quarter) fumble. He has to keep the ball high and tight, and it’s hard to do that wen youre not a thumper” like departed starter Chris Polk.
“I wish wed blocked better for him, and I wish he showed more patience in running the ball.”
Sarkisian said he expected three inexperienced backups, freshman Erich Wilson II, redshirt freshman Dezden Petty and sophomore Willis Wilson, to get time, as well as others doing “spot duty and special situations.”
In other words . . . here, you take the ball, and best wishes.
At right tackle, Mike Criste jumped in for Riva Saturday, both sophomores seeing their first game action. Sarkisian said he is also considering moving one of three right guards –junior Erik Kohler, sophomore James Atoe and freshman Shane Brostek — into the breach.
With its inexperienced tackles, the O-line had problems Saturday protecting quarterback Keith Price, who was sacked three times and flushed from the pocket on numerous occasions. Sarkisian said a part of it included missed assignments from the second tight end and the fullback.
“The line draws the brunt of the criticism, but those are areas we definitely need to improve upon,” Sarkisian said. “Were going to need extra bodies. We better be ready for that.”
The Huskies, who are 2-9 against SEC foes, are going to have to be ready for a lot of things — quickly. The injury news follows the discomfort many Huskies fans felt over the tepid 21-12 win Saturday over San Diego State, a game that started as a blowout and ended clumsily. Sarkisian admitted something was missing, and sounded a little surprised by it.
“I thought we almost lacked that killer instinct that was needed that night,” he said. “We had some opportunities in the fringe and in the red zone. We pride ourselves on being very efficient and scoring touchdowns when we’re down there, and we didn’t capitalize.”
It’s doubtful the Huskies will be doing any sleepwalking Saturday in Baton Rouge’s Tiger Stadium, which at 92,542 is the 10th largest stadium among NCAA schools.
In ranking game environments in a 2007 survey, ESPN said LSU was “the scariest place to play.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was quoted by Fox News as saying, “Unfair is playing LSU on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge.”
Then there is the talent disparity. LSU is coming off its first undefeated regular season (12-0) in its Southeastern Conference history, and appeared in its third BCS title game in nine years in January. The Tigers won in 2003 and 2007 before losing in January 21-0 to fellow SEC dreadnaught Alabama.
Sarkisian’s first game as head coach at Washington in 2009 was against LSU at Husky Stadium. Given that UW was coming off an 0-12 season, the Huskies were respectable, losing 31-23, in which Jake Locker threw for 321 yards.
But Sarkisian knew he was in deep trouble when he observed warmups, comparing the LSU behemoths with his puny band.
“Hopefully, we’ll look a little better in pregame warm-ups,” he said with a nervous laugh. “Looking on their side (in 2009), it didn’t look like a great match-up.
“A lot of people talk about their great players, but they’re very well coached (Les Miles succeeded Nick Saban in 2005). They’re willing to take risks — fake punts, running on fourth and one.”
If Sarkisian gets to see even one risky play from LSU, the evening will have to be considered a triumph, because it could mean the game is close. It also could mean that Miles wants to test out his playbook by pouring it on, something known to happen in the SEC, where football is not merely passion, but predator vs. prey.
Sarkisian has already conceded that the seven-step drop is removed from the passing game this week, because LSU’s front seven will catch Price at step five. That means a lot of quick passing, roll-outs and bootlegs for Price.
“They’re good,” said Sarkisian of LSU’s rush. “From a game-planning standpoint, if I go empty backs and go seven-step drops all night long, we’ll have a tough night. So we are going to have to do things continually to mix things up in the types of plays that we are running, in the tempo with which we do things. That’s one of the beauties of this system: We have the capability of doing those things. We are just going to have to lean on that more than we have in some other ball games.”
The only problem with leaning on something is that it first requires being upright. That is hard to do in Baton Rouge, which is French for, “Stay down, and don’t get up.”