Seventeen games on a Seattle Mariners calendar is a blip (although a slightly deeper abyss for Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong), but 17 on a University of Washington football slate can make a profound difference. Consider where head coach Steve Sarkisian and his Huskies were 17 games ago, and then mull where they are now and the opportunities that present themselves.
A 17-game Husky rewind dates to Dec. 29, 2011, when Washington, while scoring a commendable 56 points, surrendered a school-record 67 in an outlandish loss to Robert Griffin III and Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. UW yielded 777 yards that night, 482 rushing, an avalanche that UW quarterback Keith Price couldn’t overcome even with seven touchdowns; four passing, three running.
Within days of that 67-point barrage against a defense that allowed an embarrassing 50 or more points four times in 13 games, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian made the first of two major changes to his program, replacing his entire defensive coaching staff, most notably coordinator Nick Holt (now at Western Kentucky).
The new coordinator, Justin Wilcox, plucked off the staff at Tennessee, had an immediate impact. Taking over a defense ranked 106th in the nation (453.3 yards per game), he coached it up to 31st (357.4), shaving nearly 100 yards per game off the per-game average. At the same time, UW’s scoring defense went from 108th nationally (35.9 points per game) in 2011 to 39th (24.2) last season.
That didn’t solve all of Sarkisian’s problems, which began with his inheritance of a roster left barren by his predecessor, Tyrone Willingham. Despite the improved statistical performance on defense and victories over ranked Stanford and Oregon State teams, the Huskies ended 2012 sourly, blowing an 18-point lead in a 31-28 loss to 2-9 Washington State in the Apple Cup, then dropping a 28-26 decision to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Another loss, 52-17 at Arizona Oct. 20, prompted Sarkisian’s second major change. Left gasping by Arizona’s up-tempo offense, Sarkisian remodeled the Huskies into his version of same, the consequence of which, in conjunction with a still-improving defense, has resulted in Washington’s first 4-0 start since 2001, a No. 15 national ranking by The Associated Press, and the possibility of the first 5-0 since 1992.
It’s instructive to look at the progress Washington has made on both sides of the ball since the year of the bowl debacle against Baylor.
|Year||Record||Avg. Snaps||Rush YDs||Pass YDs||Total||TDs||PPG|
|Year||Record||Avg. Snaps||Rush Yds||Pass Yds||Total||TDs||PPG|
The Huskies are on pace to score 478 points, which would be a school record (the 1991 co-national champions scored 461). They allow an average of 10.8. At that rate, Washington would permit 130 over 12 games after giving up 381, 467 and 314 in the last three seasons. The school record is 101 by the 1991 co-champions.
Another number might better illustrate the defensive progress. The Huskies rank third nationally in yards per play allowed (3.8). Last year, they allowed 5.4 and the year before that 6.4.
What do the improvements mean? They mean that since the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor, Washington, after the dismal Willingham era and three consecutive seven-win years under Sarkisian, appears positioned jump the hump and compete with the elite teams in the Pac-12. This makes the next three weeks — No. 5 Stanford Saturday, No. 2 Oregon Oct. 12, No. 22 Arizona State Oct. 19 — the biggest three of Sarkisian’s coaching career in Seattle.
The stretch will determine whether Washington’s long-awaited breakthrough is really at hand, whether the Huskies are ready to contend for a conference title, or whether 2013 will become another Holiday, Alamo, or Las Vegas bowl year.
*=21 offensive TDs projects to 63 over 12 games; 5 allowed projects to 15.