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Originally published Monday, November 9, 2009 at 11:00 PM

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Maybe that Huskies turnaround isn't going to be that quick, after all

Washington's problems late in games, and offensively in the red zone, have slowed progress toward winning record.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In the giddy moments following a win over USC in September, first-year coach Steve Sarkisian held the victory up as proof that the turnaround of Washington football could happen quickly.

Monday, in the aftermath of five losses in six games since then, Sarkisian acknowledged the turnaround has hit a bit of a lull.

Sarkisian said he thought the USC game, with UW winning when it drove for a last-second field goal, showed that the team had figured out how to win close games. But the six games since, featuring three last-minute or overtime losses, indicate that idea might have been premature.

"When you beat a team like SC in the tight fashion we did, I still maintain the fact that, 'Hey, we are just going to be this team, we are going to play tight games and we are going to win the game late because we do things right,' " Sarkisian said.

"Unfortunately that hasn't occurred ... so that's why I'm hesitant to go back and say it's still going to happen as fast as I want it to, because obviously we haven't learned that value of the nuances of doing things right late in ballgames."

The skid means the Huskies have to win out to get to a bowl game, beginning with Saturday's game against surging Oregon State in Corvallis. Sarkisian has previously talked about a possible bowl game but said Monday the team's view has to be narrower. "It's about this one right now. We've got to really focus on this game."

The last-minute losses include Saturday's 24-23 defeat at UCLA. The game essentially ended when Jake Locker threw an interception with 54 seconds left as the Huskies were driving for a potential winning score.

But Sarkisian said the game might have been lost before that as the Huskies had five drives in which plays were run inside the 20 yard-line (the red zone) but scored just one touchdown (the other TD came on a 34-yard pass), settling for four field-goal attempts (three of which were made). Washington had four consecutive possessions inside the red zone in the first half but had just 16 points at halftime.

"We have had the ability to make plays in the red zone that could've changed the complexion of a lot of games," Sarkisian said. "You think about this game, you think about Arizona State, you think about Notre Dame, in a blink, we're a 6-3 football team right now instead of 3-6 and this is a whole different press conference right now."

Proof of the red-zone difficulties? The Huskies have scored touchdowns on 15 of 32 red-zone drives, making them one of just 23 of the 120 Division-I teams to score touchdowns on fewer than 50 percent of their red-zone possessions.

Sarkisian said he can't point to any one thing for the red-zone issues, saying, "We have not been able to find the right mix. Part of that is the play-calling. Part of that is execution. And part of that is tipping your hat to your opponent."

But in a separate answer about why the offense has struggled, Sarkisian might have touched on one of the biggest issues when he said a major problem is "our ability to really run the football when the opponent knows we're going to run it. ... I think [that] is something that's missing."

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That might cost the Huskies the most in the red zone. Washington has just six rushing touchdowns in the red zone. Only eight teams in the country have fewer. And UW has just eight rushing TDs overall — only seven teams in the country have fewer.

"It's frustrating when you look at our efficiency in the red zone, not just in this game but as the season's worn on," Sarkisian said. "We're just not getting it done there."

Notes

Dave Cutaia, the coordinator of football officiating for the Pac-10, said the proper protocol was followed in the replay booth following a controversial TD catch by UCLA's Terrence Austin in the third quarter Saturday.

Some on the UW side thought the ball hit the ground, but no time out for a replay was called. Sarkisian said Monday he didn't immediately call a time out to have the play reviewed because he assumed it would be. He said he tried to quickly call one once he realized no time out was being called by the officials but couldn't get it done.

Cutaia said Monday that "the play was reviewed without a stop. They received the shots and the replay officials did review the play at the time that it happened. And they felt there was not indisputable evidence to reverse the call on the field."

• Sarkisian said he hopes DT Cameron Elisara, who has missed the past two games with a stinger, will be able to play against OSU. Sarkisian said there's a chance LB E.J. Savannah (hand) will return. There were no new injuries suffered against UCLA that figure to cause anyone to miss the game Saturday.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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