Sark aggressive 'til the end

PULLMAN, Wash. - Forget about Steve Sarkisian as the Head Coach of the University of Washington. He's more the coach of the offense, while Nick Holt gets to coach the defense all to himself. Forget about those mundane things like field position, down-and-distance, taking the safe play, and all that…this guy is a Riverboat Gambler's Riverboat Gambler.

And just like he showed last week in Berkeley, Washington State got a chance to watch Sark operate live and in color. And it could have backfired on him.

But in three weeks he's gone from the captain of the team that couldn't shoot straight to an outright assassin. Why go up 10 the first play of the fourth quarter when 14 sounds so much better? Why attempt a 48-yard field goal on 4th and 1 during your final drive of the game to take the lead when you really put the hammer down and score a touchdown? Just ask Sark.

It's the Sarkisian way: Go for the whole thing, or go home. And in the Huskies' 35-28 win to send them bowling for the first time in eight years, the coach of Washington's offense has set an aggressive tone to match the identity of what he's trying to accomplish in turning around a program dead to the world just two years ago.

"Two years ago Monday was when I met them, and I remember seeing those kids," Sarkisian said after the Apple Cup, noting how the Huskies resembled less of a team and more like a pack of whipped dawns. There weren't a lot of U-Dub gear on; there weren't a lot of hats, there weren't a lot of sweatshirts - there were a lot of guys wearing hoodies with their heads down."

Fast forward to Saturday night - and the third game in a row where the Huskies had their backs to the wall, needing a win to secure a bowl berth. By the plays he called - all the way to the final one, a pass from Jake Locker to Jermaine Kearse in the end zone when all he needed to do was rely on Chris Polk's record-setting 284-yard rush effort to put themselves in field goal range to salt the game away - Sarkisian showed a mindset that defied description.

How could he chance UW's post-season hopes on what, on paper, looked to be incredible risks? Throw the ball when Polk had been so rock-solid the whole night? But upon reflection, it's just who he is. He's supremely confident in what he does and how he's prepared his players to execute at the most crucial times to finish the job. It hasn't always been that way, but it sure looks like the last three games will cement Sark's aggressive philosophy.

"I went back to who we are," he said during the fateful timeout in the fourth quarter that resulted in UW keeping their final drive alive on a 15-yard run by Polk - ironically on the same play that won them the game at California. You've got to stick to your guns. You have to make calculated, smart decisions, but ultimately you've got to be who you are."

And who he is is the same coach who could have played it by the book, but didn't and lost at BYU; the same coach that has admitted from time to time that the Offensive Coordinator in him wants to overrule his inner head coach; the same coach that gambled and won at Cal; the same coach who will continue to take risks because of his unswerving belief in his team and their capability. In his mind, if they have prepared and done things the right way, it's not a risk. Why put the game in someone else's hands when you know you can get the job done?

Going for it on fourth down didn't surprise WSU Head Coach Paul Wulff. "When they called a timeout, I knew they would come back out with their offense," he said. And the Cougars still couldn't do anything about the irresistible force that was Washington's offense on that final drive.

"I knew, and we all knew I was going to get the fourth down and take on their whole defense and not get stopped," Polk would later say. And he was right. It was a gargantuan effort by him, besting his previous career-high by nearly 150 yards; it was a gargantuan effort by the offensive line, with a banged-up Senio Kelemete gutting through at left tackle; it was a gargantuan effort by the receivers that sprung Polk so many times in the open field during the game I lost count. It was a belief in their ability to finish, and finish the way they needed to in order to secure their goal of a post-season.

"The odds have been in our favor when we've been aggressive," Sarkisian said. "We went for the one on the goal-line and had a little mishap with the ball handling, and I thought to myself, we didn't make that one, so that means we're going to make this one. And we went back out and did it."

It's difficult to watch a lot of the time. Sarkisian's not coaching-by-numbers, because that's not who he is. The Huskies needed someone who was the anti-Tyrone Willingham, and they certainly got that in Sark. Willingham would have looked at that fourth-and-one on their last drive and kicked it 10 times out of 10. Most coaches probably would have.

Sarkisian is cut from a different fabric - one built from his time at USC when they set the bar for success at the BCS level. He's a winner that is more than happy to force that mentality - down your throat, if need be. And for the last three weeks, it was just what UW had to have. They may not have been ready to handle success, but he was going to make sure it happened - or if it didn't, they would lose on their terms.

Some may not see that as progress; this do-or-die attitude doesn't leave much room to equivocate. But Sarkisian doesn't have time to worry about the fence-sitters. He's going to be too busy preparing these Huskies for what looks to be a bid to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. He has 15 more practices to bring along the younger players, as well as giving the much-maligned seniors one more memory they can treasure while their college careers come to an end.

For Sark, he knows his guys have bought in. Now he hopes the way the team has finished this week has made believers out of Husky Nation too. It may be gruff, it may not be conventional, but give Sarkisian all the credit in the world - he stuck to his beliefs and did it his way.

"We're proud Huskies, and we're proud to represent the University of Washington and this football program because of all the greatness that has come before us," he said. "And I think we can say tonight we're pretty proud Huskies."

For UW fans watching in the future, expect more calls of the unexpected. Expect more frustrating moves that may cause you to pull your hair out. But make no mistake; Steve Sarkisian has brought UW football back from the grave. He has given the program a life and an energy that is as contagious as it is confounding at times.

But that's Sark. He's still learning on the job. But as Cheech Marin once said, he has some extra large huevos, and for as much as he'll make a mistake that may cost the Huskies a game here or a game there, Washington would not be bowling if it weren't for his go-for-broke style and way of coaching.


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