Huskies Their Own Worst Enemy…Again

SEATTLE - In the great State of Washington, 'Couging It' holds a special place among quite a few of the natives - and especially when it comes to college football. It's a badge of honor, a right and position reserved for those special few that take pride in pulling defeat out of the jaws of victory with consistency and ease, as if it was their life's calling - their destiny.

After Washington's 24-14 loss to USC Saturday night, a game where the Husky defense held the opposition to zero points and 173 yards of offense in the second half, I'm sure UW fans are wondering just which football God they pissed off to lose games in such an ugly and ridiculous manner. This team is still a couple area codes away from 'Couging It', and when you mention 'Couging It' in reference to that fine institution located in Pullman, a Washington fan will simply smile and nod their head in agreement. Talk 'Couging It' in reference to their own team's play, and you might as well clear out. Them's fighting words.

Play like they did against USC from here on out and even a sideways glance toward 'Couging It' might as well be considered a declaration of War, because as much as they won't want to admit it - Saturday's loss had some crimson and gray paw prints all over it.

"We just came out with our hair on fire, believing in each other," said UW senior receiver Cody Bruns, a Prosser kid schooled well in the ways of what 'Couging It' means on the east side of the state. Problem was, he was talking about the second half of the Huskies game when Washington was already down 24-7 and the damage had been done.

Winning teams typically subscribe to a simple formula. It's a formula that - to use Steve Sarkisian's own words - has stood the test of time: Don't turn the ball over, take what's given and play solid in special teams and the field position game. Those tenets have kept good football teams in games for decades, but Washington is trying to test the pliability of those fundamentals, often turning them on their head to see what the world looks like upside down.

Let's go down the list…

The turnover battle? Five turnovers at No. 2 Oregon - check. Four turnovers at home versus No. 9 USC - check.

Take what's given? Here's Keith Price after losing to Oregon 52-21: "No excuse. I can't make bonehead decisions. I'm pressing too hard." How about after losing to the Trojans? "It's easy to force a pass, it's easy to start scrambling and get loose with the ball, get careless with the ball. It's easy to do that instead of making the safe play. Maybe the three-yard play is the better play." Check.

Solid special teams? At Oregon the Huskies muff their first punt return of the game, leading to a Ducks score. Against USC they get a punt blocked for a Trojan touchdown. Check.

Field position? During the first five drives of the game against the Ducks, UO started in Washington territory twice; first at the UW 20 after a muffed punt and the other one due to a pick-six by Avery Patterson. Against USC, the Trojans had two drives start inside Husky territory, including the blocked punt that went for a touchdown. Those six drives produced 24 points. In the first half they never spend one second inside their own 20.

Check. And Mate.

The chess game within the football game never materialized; as it was in Eugene the Huskies shot themselves in the foot with poor offensive execution and turnovers against the Trojans, allowing the other team to enjoy a lead that was never threatened. Lane Kiffin, whose only connection with Don James is that they both have been college football coaches at one point in their lives, pulled out Page One of the James playbook. USC won the game without compounding mistakes, fully content to let the other guys do that for them. They won the battle of special teams, ran the ball and stopped the run. They took what was given, and that was enough - even on a day Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee would probably rather forget.

USC's lead could have been threatened, and should have been. Take away a missed field goal and a Keith Price fumble deep in USC territory early in the fourth quarter, and Washington has 5:26 left in the game and a chance to win after a Josh Shirley sack on Trojan quarterback Barkley gave the ball back to the home team.

The defense played valiantly. They played inspired. They played as if they expected to win the game. "Nobody is going to take a moral victory out of a defeat," UW Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "You can't be surprised if you do good things. When you know what you're doing and you play fast and are able to make some plays, then you're going to play confident."

But it's a team game - and not just a team game; it's a game played in three phases. And right now in the Pac-12 it's simply not good enough that one phase of the game is covered to the point where you can feel confident of victory. It has to happen in all phases for 60 minutes, much in the manner it did in Washington's 17-13 win over Stanford. But ever since that victory it's as if the Huskies' focus has been completely targeted on finishing games instead of starting - and that doesn't work when you're playing from behind against top-10 teams and compounding those deficits with turnovers.

"That's two consecutive weeks now that we took the field and we didn't respond good in the first half of the game," Sarkisian said. "When you've got good teams and you go in the locker room down it's hard. It makes it hard to win."

In speaking to college coaches over the years I've gotten the sense they feel getting blown out is tougher to take than losses where you felt like the game was still in the balance. In their minds, the blown nailbiters are games where you can take something positive from them, even if they sting like a mother. The blowouts? Those are harder because you were never in the game to begin with so it's hard to locate those silver linings.

I feel fans tend to linger longer on the losses that were clearly within reach. Blowouts can be rationalized to a certain extent: The other team was just that much better, we didn't prepare nearly as well as we should have, it just went from bad to worse from the start…but the close losses typically hinge on a few plays that ultimately determine the outcome.

You can argue Washington has suffered one of each of these losses the past two weeks - and both burn in different ways. With games at Arizona and Oregon State looming, the early three game conference gauntlet has now become a five game test of will. And if the Huskies can't find a cure for what ails them - namely the inability to get out of their own way - and that five game test will draw all the way out to the end of the season.

Does Washington have the physical and mental fortitude to overcome their own backfires and still win, even on the road? Can the offense reach down and somehow match the confidence and playmaking ability of a defense playing as well as any UW defense has in a decade, especially if they have to simplify things in order to find the rhythm needed to move the ball on a consistent basis?

The answers need to come quickly. But more than anything, the Huskies have to do one thing and do it well - show up. They need to be ready to play from the jump and bring every ounce of energy they have. That's it. It's a pre-requisite. It's also a no-brainer. Washington can't mirror the effort shown by late-arriving fans and expect to enjoy success. Act like the cool crowd and show up 10 minutes late and you'll be wondering too how you got down 10 points so quickly.

Lose a couple more games the way they did against USC and the 'C' term popularized in the Palouse will start haunting UW fans and the program like a creeping death, a fate worse than any blowout could seemingly bring.


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