Huskies are happy with progress at the halfway point
Washington is 3-3 under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, with a legitimate shot at a bowl game
Seattle Times staff reporter
UW @ Arizona State, 7:15 p.m., FSN
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As the Washington Huskies hit the midway point of their schedule this week, Steve Sarkisian remarked that for coaches, this is the time when the season becomes a little bit like the movie "Groundhog Day."
"You just kind of wake up, you look at film, you put together a game plan, you play Saturday, you wake up and do it all over again," he said.
Sarkisian should have been here last year if he really wanted a season that felt the same week in and week out.
Compared to the drudgery that was the 0-12 record of 2008, this has been a thriller worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, already producing three games that figure to be remembered by UW fans for decades.
That makes it already the second-most successful season for the Huskies since 2003, and the record is even more impressive when considering it has come against a schedule judged by the Sagarin Ratings this week as the toughest in the nation.
"After six games, sitting at 3-3, when you look at the quality of opponents we've played, I'm very proud of our football team," Sarkisian said. "We've really improved. We've improved physically, we've improved mentally. And so I think our future's very bright."
Here's our own look at the first half that was and the second half to come:
That the Huskies are, in fact, 3-3 against what might be the toughest schedule in the nation. That guarantees at least a three-game improvement from a year ago. And three wins would tie Sarkisian for the fifth-best first-season improvement for a Pac-10 coach since the conference expanded to 10 teams.
Few really expected UW to be even now and, frankly, the stats don't really support it. Washington ranks 106th in the nation in total defense, 74th in total offense and has been outgained in the past five games an average of 437 to 334 yards.
But the players have bought into Sarkisian's "Expect to win" mantra to pull out three of those contests with some timely defensive stops and clutch plays from quarterback Jake Locker.
Locker's return to full health after missing the final eight games of last season can't be understated when assessing UW's improvement. Locker has helped UW make the switch from an offense predicated on his running skills to one featuring a more conventional passing attack.
Locker has completed 113 of 198 passes for a career-best 57.1 completion ratio, and has a passer efficiency rating of 130.1, compared to a combined 104.7 his first two seasons. Each number would be higher if not for a an average of three or four drops by receivers in most games.
Locker has played so well that the question now is whether he will leave early for the NFL draft. For now, he isn't saying.
The few glimpses UW fans got of Chris Polk in 2008 didn't indicate what they'd see in 2009. But he has turned from an unsure true freshman to an assertive redshirt freshman living up to his billing as one of the best running-back recruits to sign with UW in years. He's on pace for one of the best seasons by a Huskies tailback this decade, with 486 yards in six games.
Sark's biggest surprises
Asked that question this week, Sarkisian named Polk and the depth of the receiving corps on offense and linebackers Donald Butler and Mason Foster on defense. Of the latter two, he said he knew they were good players "but they are playing at an extremely high level for us."
On special teams, one might also nominate kicker Erik Folk, whose inconsistency was a story line throughout fall camp. But maybe he's just a gamer — he has hit 9 of 10 field goals this season, including the last-second kick to beat USC and another to tie Notre Dame.
The return games. Washington seems to have the talent to produce some quality returns. But the Huskies have struggled mightily, ranking 110th in the nation — their worst standing in any category — on kickoff returns, at just 18.3 yards per attempt.
In their latest search for an answer they have now turned to Polk. Washington technically leads the conference in punt returns at 18.5 per attempt. But that's based on just two returns — and none since the second game of the year against Idaho. Teams have punted just 15 times against the Huskies overall.
The defense is surely getting better, and some of its stats are no doubt skewed by the schedule. But the reality is also that the 418 yards it is giving up per game would be the worst of any Huskies team not coached by Tyrone Willingham.
And the struggles are all over. Washington ranks ninth in the Pac-10 against the run and eighth against the pass. Only its stout red-zone play has kept the scoring totals from being a lot higher.
All of UW's numbers should get better as the Huskies now play teams with struggling offenses, beginning Saturday at Arizona State. If not, trouble looms.
The Huskies are halfway to their first bowl game since 2002 — a 6-6 record is all that's needed, and would almost certainly be enough to get UW an invitation, given the Pac-10's six guaranteed bowl slots.
And the schedule is more inviting — UW's first six opponents are a combined 22-5 so far (excluding games against the Huskies) while the next six are 19-14. Given that UW will be a heavy favorite to beat WSU, UW will realistically have to win two of the other five.
Best bets might be Saturday at Arizona State, Nov. 7 at UCLA and Dec. 5 against California. That it's even worth discussing, however, is a victory in itself.
• The Huskies practiced indoors and will do so again today to prepare for expected 100-degree weather in Tempe, Ariz. Sarkisian said he isn't too worried, noting that it will cool as the sun goes down.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com
|Sept. 5||LSU 31, UW 23||Another loss, but evidence that these weren't the same, old Dawgs|
|Sept. 12||UW 42, Idaho 23||Husky Nation's nightmare — and 15-game losing streak — come to an end|
|Sept. 19||UW 16, USC 13||Husky Stadium goes nuts as coach Steve Sarkisian beats his old team|
|Sept. 26||Stanford 34, UW 14||Oops. Maybe Huskies aren't going to win national title, after all|
|Oct. 3||Notre Dame 37, UW 30 (OT)||This really is a game of inches — Huskies turned back at South Bend|
|Oct. 10||UW 36, Arizona 33||And you thought that win over USC was a miracle|
UPDATE - 10:18 PM
Washington State's Klay Thompson will play Thursday against Huskies
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.