Hard to know which part of the acid bath was worse for Washington: Eight consecutive losses to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, four touchdowns by the local kid who got away, a shoulder injury to quarterback Keith Price that knocked him out of the game by halftime, or a wire-to-wire defeat inflicted by the coach who would be Husky, Jim Mora.
Maybe it was the 11 penalties 113 lost yards in the ninth game of the season, suggestive of lessons unlearned.
So many arrows from which to choose, any one of which could have been the game-fatal weapon.
It was no shock that the 13th-ranked Bruins won 41-31 at home. But it was disturbing for Washington fans to realize that the Huskies were not only never out of it, they were down three early in the third quarter and had a couple opportunities to bring about a tie, but self-destructed.
Included in the litany of mayhem by one’s own hand was another moment of coach Steve Sarkisian out-thinking himself. Trailing 34-24 early in the the fourth quarter, the Huskies were faced with a third and short at their own 42-yard line. Sarkisian went with a Wildcat formation that gave RB Bishop Sankey a direct snap. He faked a handoff to an end in the read-option style, but his keeper went for a two-yard loss.
Weird as was that play call (did Sark believe UCLA worried about Sankey throwing?), Sarkisian went even weirder. He decided to go for it on fourth-and-two, which is sufficiently high risk, but not unreasonable. But instead of relying on Sankey, he had Cyler Miles, the redshirt freshman replacement for Price, attempt to throw a well-defended, short slant route to another freshman, Damore’ea Stringfellow.
The pass wasn’t close. The ball went over on downs. The next play, UCLA exploited Washington’s unprepared defense when quarterback Brett Hundley hit WR Devien Lucien on an undefended hitch route in the flat. He weaved the remaining 32 yards untouched for the backbreaking touchdown and a 41-24 lead, a three-score deficit far too deep for Washington, operating with 10 minutes remaining with the inexperienced Miles, as well as Ben Riva at left tackle, replacing injured vet Micah Hatchie (ankle).
The playcalls will be remembered by fans who believe Sarkisian lacks the seasoning to make more rational calls.
Sarkisian acknowledged the three-play sequence was the decider.
“The failed fourth-down conversion was the big play,” he told KJR radio. But the Huskies were down to low-percentage plays because of the screw-ups that created the deficit.
“Mentally, physcially and emotionally, we were really ready to play,” he said. “I felt we were ready. Then . . . boom-boom.”
The booms were fumbles lost to the Bruins on the first two possessions by two of Washington’s most reliable: Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. After a short reception for a likely first down, the big tight end was sideswiped by a UCLA defender and the ball came free. On the next series, Sankey, who had only one other fumble, coughed it up. The short fields made for easier UCLA drives, and the 14-0 deficit proved insurmountable.
Tough as that was, the Huskies added another obstacle: Penalties. An interception was nullified by a legitimate pass-interference call on DB Sean Parker, and a touchdown brought back by a much more dubious hands-to the-face call on OG Dexter Charles.
“Unbelievable,” Sarkisian said of the penalty totals. “Some of them were really critical ones. That part is really disappointing. We been hammering home about discipline, and getting better at it. This was really disappointing.”
Regarding Price, who buckled at the knees in pain before coming off the field on his own, Sarkisian said the injury to the quarterback’s throwing shoulder was of unknown severity. X-rays at halftime were negative, but it was plain he was unable to throw. The fifth-year senior watched the second half from the sidelines in no apparent discomfort and without a harness or sling.
The other blow was to Hatchie, the left tackle of whom Sarkisian “had been playing really good ball the last month.” He twisted his left ankle and was re-taped, but did not return.
But two young backups, Miles and Stringfellow, gave a positive glimpse of the future. Miles was 15 of 22 for 149 yards and two touchdowns. The late picks were at least partly due to the desperation of the final possessions.
“He didn’t look like a backup — he looked like a starter in this league,” Sarkisian said. “Not just a starter but a good player. He’s a guy who can go in and play and not be just serviceable, but a dynamic player.”
Stringfellow, a 6-3, 210-pound freshman from Moreno Valley, CA., caught eight balls for 147 yards and a a touchdown.
“He could have had over 200 yards,” Sarkisian said. “He’s like Kasen Williams, and he’s going to make a lot of catches.”
The Huskies’ reduced ability to rush, due partly a strong UCLA front seven, failed to take the pressure off the young guys. UW had only 102 yards on the ground, 91 by Sankey, but it took him 27 carries. His longest was 12 yards.
“Bishop was so close to breaking open three or four times, but their (defensive) speed made up for it,” he said. “I didn’t want to abandon the run and let it become throwing game.”
At 6-4, the Huskies can still improve on last year’s record by beating Oregon State and Washington State. But they may be down a couple of key players, and Friday night at the Rose Bowl, they found their best players, and their coach, weren’t quite up to the task of hanging with the big boys in the Pac-12 Conference. Again.