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Originally published October 24, 2009 at 7:32 PM | Page modified October 24, 2009 at 9:46 PM

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Steve Kelley

Huskies are suffering from growing pains

As improved as Washington is — and there's no arguing the improvement — the Huskies also are one miracle win against Arizona from being stuck in a five-game losing streak. They still are making too many game-changing, game-killing mistakes.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Sixty-one minutes and 17 seconds of disaster.

A little more than one hour of football has changed the course of this first Huskies season under Steve Sarkisian.

Sixty-one minutes and 17 seconds that began last weekend at Arizona State and finished Saturday inside Husky Stadium stalled Washington's Quixotic quest for a bowl game and showed just how hard rebuilding a damaged football program can be.

"We're going to have growing pains, and obviously this is one of them," Sarkisian said after the 43-19 beatdown from Oregon.

As improved as Washington is — and there's no arguing the improvement — the Huskies also are one miracle win against Arizona from being stuck in a five-game losing streak.

They still are making too many game-changing, game-killing mistakes:

• The blocked punt that resulted in Oregon's first touchdown.

• The Ducks' two-point conversion on a fake PAT against a disorganized Washington special-teams unit.

• Oregon's fake field goal that was turned into a first down and led to the Ducks' second score.

• Quarterback Jake Locker's two interceptions, one on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

• Chris Polk's fumble that Oregon turned into another touchdown and a 36-6 third-quarter lead.

At 3-5, this still is a program on the mend, on the move. But the process is slow. It doesn't happen with one big upset win over a national power like USC in September.

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The Huskies haven't improved since they beat the Trojans. They still aren't deep enough, still aren't strong enough. The defense was worn down in the third quarter by Oregon's hurry-up offense.

This still is a team learning to win.

"We had opportunities in this game, especially early, to change the complexion of this game, to keep our crowd involved," Sarkisian said. "When you don't do that, I hesitate to say, 'Man, we're just not good.' I don't want to say that. To say, 'Boy, it's going to take longer than I thought.' "

After the USC win, Sarkisian said the Washington turnaround could happen faster than most people believed. Now, eight games into his first season as a head coach, he is understanding just how hard the process is.

"I still think we're a dang good football team," Sarkisian said. "But we're not playing football the way we were capable of playing it, like we were playing early in the year. Being fundamentally sound. Being technique sound. Trusting our scheme. I feel like right now we're getting away from that a little bit. As a coach, that's a major disappointment."

Maybe the most disturbing aspect of Washington's loss to Oregon was the play of junior quarterback Locker, who seems to have lost some of his aggression.

In the process of coaching Locker to become a pocket passer, is Sarkisian taking away his quarterback's fire? Shouldn't he let Jake be Jake?

"That's a natural concern," Sarkisian said. "This is a very fine line we're operating on here with him. We're trying to change a guy's game, the complexion of his game. I knew it wasn't going to happen overnight. Obviously he had some really early success, as we did."

Against Oregon, Locker completed 23 of 44 passes for 266 yards. He threw two picks and was sacked four times.

"The challenge for Jake and his game is to learn from these games and to learn from this style of play, and where's the happy medium?" Sarkisian said. "Where can he take the running style that he had previously? Where can he fit it into this scheme and what we're doing, so that it flows?

"The challenge is on me, as well, to call things to allow him to play within a system, but also utilize some of his strengths."

Losses like this are the torturous lessons learned while growing up. But unlike last season's 0-12 Huskies, this team is staying in games, mentally and physically. It is keeping hope alive.

"The last thing I want to see is the morale of the football team down and gone and 'Oh, woe is me,' " Sarkisian said. "That's not our guys' mentality. We've got a fighter's mentality. I think that's a great thing to have and something to build from."

But as the past, disastrous 61 minutes and 17 seconds have reminded us, rebuilding hurts. Winning takes time.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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