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Originally published October 25, 2012 at 8:03 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 2:49 PM

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Washington needs to beat Oregon State to salvage season

Huskies' rematch with the Beavers is critical after three blowout losses in a row.

Times staff columnist

Saturday

Oregon State @ Washington, 7:15 p.m., Pac-12

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A year ago, before Washington met Oregon State in Corvallis, one program looked as if it were ascendant, while the other looked in decline.

Washington was the vibrant, young program. Oregon State was stuck, the poor, forgotten stepchild of the Pac-12 North.

And then the game kicked off and Oregon State hung with Washington for three quarters, before knocking out the Huskies in the fourth, beating them 38-21.

Washington, which admittedly started the game without hobbled quarterback Keith Price, really hasn't been the same since that dull November afternoon.

So now we come to the rematch, and the circumstances are dramatically different this season. Oregon State coach Mike Riley is again showing why he is one of the best coaches in the country. The Beavers are 6-0, tied for first in the North and ranked seventh in the country by The Associated Press.

Washington is staggering into this home game, a loser of three in a row by a combined score of 128-52. Quarterback Price is having a crisis of confidence and head coach Steve Sarkisian is under attack from the unhappy legions in purple and gold.

If this Saturday night rematch feels as if it is the most important game of Sarkisian's four-year term, well, it is.

The era of lopsided losses should be over at Washington, but three weeks in a row, including the home loss to USC, Washington has opened games without emotion and without purpose. Three weeks in a row, the Huskies have come into games with a plan they thought would work and had those plans shredded by halftime.

"Things got out of hand so fast," Sarkisian said, looking back this week at the 52-17 humiliation at Arizona.

Sarkisian seemed genuinely flummoxed at Monday's soul-searching news conference. He likes this team and seems frustrated with his inability to crack its code.

"They're better than the way they've been playing," he said.

And that's on the head coach.

"Maybe the game plan wasn't as good as we thought," Sarkisian said. "For one reason or another, it didn't get done. So we're being extremely critical of ourselves, of what we're putting on our kids, what we're asking them to do to ensure that we're putting them in positions to be successful."

Washington fans have a right to expect more. They were promised more, promised a team that competes better than this team has competed.

That's on the head coach.

These lopsided defeats are inexcusable. The glaring lack of preparedness going into these big games is shocking. Arizona scored with such ease last weekend it looked as if the Wildcats, losers of their first three conference games, were headed for the BCS championship game.

This has been a disappointing season and a disappointing coaching job by Sarkisian.

Still, I think it's important to look at the bigger picture. This always has looked like a transition season, especially for the offense. With all of the changes on the coaching staff, it appeared this team was a year away from challenging for a divisional title.

The offensive line is young and has been battered almost since the day camp opened. Record-setting running back Chris Polk, who took much of the heat off Price last season, is gone. So are playmaking receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.

This offense, even with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Kasen Williams, is less athletic than the past two Sarkisian-coached teams. And the defense still is undersized.

As bad as the first two months have been, the season can be salvaged. There are gimme wins waiting against Utah, Colorado and Washington State. But the Huskies need to show, like they did against Stanford, that they can go toe-to-toe with a nationally ranked team.

This game against Oregon State, this final show-me Saturday of the season, will define this season. Lose it and even a season-ending four-game winning streak and a 7-5 record will seem hollow. Win it and win out and the program's momentum can be regained.

Kickoff is at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.

This week, will Washington arrive on time?

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

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