And So Ends The Honeymoon?

51, 65, 34, 40, 38, 67. No, those are not this weeks' Mega Million lottery numbers. They are the point totals – averaging 49.2 – that the Washington Huskies gave up to their opponents in their six losses of 2011. In 52 quarters of play over the season, the Husky defense allowed their opponents to score 10 or more points 24 times - and 20+ points on four occasions.

Conversely, they shut out their opponents a grand total of eight quarters.

Wow. 10+ points 24 times, zero points eight times.

It's almost a miracle they won seven games.

No, I am not trying to lay any more dirt on the job coffins of former defensive coaches Nick Holt, Jeff Mills, and Mike Cox. For all their best efforts, the defensive house cleaning had to happen. Steve Sarkisian didn't have to struggle with this decision in a football sense. Emotionally, it was probably harder to deal with – not only because of the close relationship he had with Holt, but also the realization that nearly half of the original staff he hired for the rebuilding of Washington's football fortunes plainly didn't work out.

Staff continuity is a cornerstone for any program that wants to keep a lasting imprint on the upper tier of college football. And while nearly any hire made in this situation almost has to be an improvement – the Huskies may have the worst defense out of all the BCS conferences in 2011, even worse that the 0-12 team of Tyrone Willingham – it is also the first big-time blemish of the Sarkisian Era. For all the feel-good things that have happened in Sark's first three seasons, it also suggests that he considers the honeymoon over. He will no longer receive a free pass from the multitudes that have celebrated his stamp on a program that has now appeared in two straight bowls after three years of SarkBall.

It is admirable that Washington's young head man is taking such quick and decisive action on what he believes (as does 99 percent of the Husky nation) needs to be done to take the next step in the growth of his program. He knew that this 7-6 team didn't represent improvement over his 7-6 team of 2010. In replacing Jake Locker, Sarkisian designed schemes for his new guy, a revelation in Keith Price (and I'm certain the Husky nation can't wait to see what he can do with about 10 more pounds of muscle and an off-season of knee-strengthening) and a physical running presence – a staple of Washington power teams of the past. Sarkisian continues to show that he's an offensive mind that will be a handful for the best defensive coordinators. And if he were armed with a defense that was even mediocre, one that was capable of stopping the occasional third-and-nine, the next step up really could have happened this season. Eight or nine wins would have been had with a defense that allowed, say, 385 yards per game.

Instead, they gave up 460 yards per game. It's a team that could have lost nine games without such a stellar offense. Without such a stellar offense, coach Sark could have already found his seat becoming warm.

So yes, Sarkisian did exactly what he had to do to not only try and take his Huskies to the next level, but to perhaps begin to lay down the stakes for the survival of his stay.

For with a tougher schedule in 2012 – LSU and Oregon away, five PAC-12 conference games on the road, USC and Stanford at home – questions will cease to be whispers and become more audible should Washington have a third straight 7-6 season - or worse.

So the hiring of new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and LB coach Peter Sirmon – and the next two defensive hires may see Sark delegate the responsibility to Wilcox - becomes very important to a continued rise in Steve Sarkisian's budding Washington legacy. Continued improvement will be based on the job of the new defensive staff. And the feeling is they won't have a three-year grace period. Their job will be more pressurized, for the defense must improve immediately, and they will be starting from rock bottom.

Sarkisian's swift action shows a proactive, professional quality of a strong head man. It was not a gamble at all to blow out nearly the entire defensive staff, considering the state of the defense. Turning to Wilcox and Sirmon – both known as excellent recruiters who obviously have strong northwest ties – shows that Coach Sark has done this swiftly with importance of formidable recruiting in mind.

Eerily similar, Don James first found his hot seat around the middle of his third year. His first two years were a wash at 11-11. Four games into the 1977 season, the Huskies were 1-3 and searching for answers. Then came his big breakthrough – a 54-0 win over Oregon. Everything clicked into place. That was the catalyst for the victory over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl, and the Dawgfather became legendary.

So this will be a huge test to the potential longevity of the Sarkisian era. For if the vastness of this sort of changeover doesn't immediately lend itself to another step up then by the end of 2012 Steve Sarkisian could find himself - for the first time - on the proverbial "hot seat".

It is a seat that no Husky fan wants to have hosed down again. Husky football is becoming relevant again, and they've had enough experience with burning furniture the last 10 years.

Instead, they would love nothing more than to see history repeated.

And so would Steve Sarkisian.


Dawgman.com Top Stories