Bye Week A Cure-All For UW

SEATTLE - There's just something about Thursday night ESPN games, isn't there? Earlier this year BYU-Boise State was a nail-biter, cuticles worn down to the nub. Add the called 'Black Out' by Washington Head Coach Steve Sarkisian and the weird vibe of CenturyLink Field after a freaky finish to the Green Bay-Seattle Monday Night fiesta/fiasco and you knew something special would take place.

"I was talking to the team last night, the ultimate goal for tonight was - whenever you guys let me leave - was to lay down in bed tonight and be 1-0 in Pac-12 play," a drained and half-way hoarse Steve Sarkisian said to the media after Washington had just defeated the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal 17-13. "I just wanted to be 1-0 and start off on the right foot. And how we did it and the final score didn't matter to me. It was more of playing the way we were capable of playing, playing disciplined football."

Like an evil brew cast in shades of black and blue - complete with eye of Newt, toad's feet, a defensive front seven that looked as good as the Seahawks at times and an offensive line that couldn't block its own shadows - Sarkisian and his coordinators came up with a game plan that baffled, befuddled and bewitched the Cardinal all night long.

And just when UW fans were about to give up on an offense that had mustered only 138 yards on offense the first 30 minutes of play, Sarkisian sprinkled in a second-half soupçon of Sankey and a whole cup of Williams - Kasen, to be exact - and it was enough for the Huskies to leave CenturyLink Field four-point winners on a night where it looked like both defenses weren't going to let anyone win.

"Part of me thinks that our fans probably appreciate these types of games more so than 48-45," Sarkisian said. "There's something gritty about our mentality here. This was a black and blue type of game and I think our fans appreciated that."

Hence the Black Out, apparently. Sarkisian seemingly knew what was coming. What he couldn't possibly have predicted based on their earlier games was how Stanford - the same team that played calm, cool and collected at home two weeks ago in defeating the then No. 2 USC Trojans - would wither under Washington's stifling pressure and the charcoal-shrouded student's section that provided a wall of noise when the Huskies needed it most.

So when Stanford's All-Pac-12 defensive end Ben Gardner jumped offside with less than two minutes left and the Huskies once again looking to manufacture one more meaningful run to put the game out of reach, Gardner reacted like he'd just been pantsed in front of 55,000 strangers. For the Cardinal, it was a bad end to what must have felt like an even worse episode of Punked, with Justin Wilcox playing the role of Ashton Kutcher. Every time they zigged, Wilcox's defense zagged - and by the end they had held Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor to 75 yards on the night and a long run of 7 yards.

The partisan CenturyLink crowd roared their approval, and after Gardner slunk his way back past the line of scrimmage Washington knew the game was theirs. They had taken the game from the Cardinal - who were up 13-3 with less than three minutes left in the third quarter - and weren't interested in giving it back.

In the end, Sarkisian had a simple answer for how Washington had won the game - a game where he admitted only him, the team and maybe his wife Stephanie were the only ones believing they could pull off the upset - they did it the right way.

They didn't hand Stanford the game with needless penalties or soul-crushing turnovers. Trent Murphy's 40-yard pick-six to give the Cardinal a 10-point edge with 18 minutes left would have sent recent UW teams over a cliff. But on Thursday night when the Huskies were on the whip-end of some sudden-change plays they didn't pull their Wicked Witch of the West routine and melt into the field turf. Instead it was the defense that came charging back at the Cardinal, time and time again. Instead of the offense picking up the defense, which has been the norm in the Sarkisian era at UW, it was Wilcox's defense that pulled five three-and-outs out of their helmets in the first half (seven in all), and made Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes' road debut a nasty one all the way around.

And just so we're clear of what the Huskies were trying to overcome here, this was a Stanford program that had put up over 1500 yards of total offense against UW in their last three meetings, including 1045 of those yards on the ground. During last year's 65-21 rout in Palo Alto, Stanford scored on their first eight possessions. Thursday night? They scored twice in their first eight possessions - and those two scores were field goals, not touchdowns.

Washington was like the Washington of old, when defenses would rise up like fortresses protected by walls of noise fortified and amplified 70,000 times. The Huskies created chaos for Nunes with every step in the pocket, like Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 where he famously quipped to his sadistic counterpart; "Always bet on Black." It wasn't always with the physical pressure; in many cases Nunes looked positively lost throwing the ball in the ground or well beyond the grasp of his capable receivers.

With the 'Black Out', Sarkisian rolled the dice on creating a rpad experience Nunes would not soon forget - and the young Cardinal quarterback came up with nothing but snake eyes. "Our fans are great, they bring it man," Sarkisian said. "And they were patient with me on offense."

What Sarkisian also showed Thursday night as CEO of Washington Football is that he's not just a one-trick pony. He's talked ad nauseum about the need for upgrading talent on the defensive side of the ball, using a top recruit like Shaquille Thompson strictly on defense while he could have very easily co-opted the talented frosh from Sacramento to fill in a big gap in UW's running attack. He stayed true to his words.

And he also proved Thursday that the biggest recruit he's brought in so far to bolster the Huskies doesn't bench 400 pounds and run a 4.5 40 - at least not anymore. Justin Wilcox is starting to repay the confidence shown in him by Sarkisian. It took Sark less than 48 hours to figure out who would be the defensive coordinator to replace Nick Holt after Holt's Huskies gave up 67 points to Baylor.

Wilcox's Dawgs gave up less than that their first three games combined - and that included a really rough 41-3 outing at LSU - so fans already knew a positive change was in the air. But I'm not so sure they saw this coming.

Chalk it up how you want - desire, discipline, hunger, confidence, momentum, mojo, belief - and you could argue that Washington used all those things to their advantage in beating Stanford Thursday. "I remember LSU," said UW quarterback Keith Price, his trademark teeth holding up a permagrin a mile wide. "I told myself I'd never do it again, never lose faith. I mean, it's an honor to beat a team like that."

It's been a while too, especially when talking about the discipline that Sarkisian craves. He desperately wants the Huskies to play the way the Pete Carroll USC teams used to. They used to kick your butt, help you back up, and then kick it again. And that's what makes this win maybe the sweetest one under Sarkisian - tastier than the victories over his old employer. UW won with grit, with determination, with a defense that was dead-set on showing the country the Pac-12 can roll up their sleeves, get in a three-point stance and shove some people around too - and they did all that with a sense that it was always well within their grasp.

They did it the right way according to Sarkisian - which was a far cry from his now-infamous halftime speech against Portland State, where his frustration with silly penalties, poor mechanics and a lack of respect for their opponent boiled over into a speech laid bare for anyone with a ticket stub to see.

It may have been a Black Out at the CLink Thursday night, but Washington played the game the way Steve Sarkisian has always imagined - with a purple heart and a midas touch when it mattered. And these Huskies are hungry for more.


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