A Statement Game In Many Respects

Steve Sarkisian was asked after Washington's 31-28 loss to Stanford Saturday night if he felt the Huskies had proven anything with their play? After all, the No. 15 Huskies were decided underdogs to the No. 5 Cardinal, a team that had laid 65 on them the last time UW had paid a visit to The Farm.

The reporter barely got his question out before Sarkisian quickly shot back his answer…no. Hell no.

"No," he said. "There's no awards for losing. We're a proud football team, and proud of the way we played. We came here to win the game, and unfortunately we didn't do that. So we have to show the ability to handle the adversity of a tough loss like this against a tough football team and learn from some of the mistakes that we had, be proud of the way we played, and have the ability to get back on the horse and go play another excellent football team next week."

Given how the Pac-12 referees turned a terrific showcase game between two top-15 teams into a 'flag football game' at times per ESPN lead announcer Brad Nessler, the question to Sarkisian seemed entirely appropriate. From the first hands to the face call on Hauoli Kikaha that was completely non-existent to the two first half penalties that were picked up because, apparently, they weren't penalties. And don't even get Sarkisian started on the unnecessary roughness call on freshman receiver Darrell Daniels, let alone the targeting non-call on Stanford outside linebacker Kevin Anderson for leading with the crown of his helmet on Keith Price right before Bishop Sankey scored the first touchdown of the night for UW. A personal foul was eventually called on Anderson, but the refs apparently missed the part where Price got up woozy and was clearly affected by a shot that should have led to an ejection in any other game.

And it's not like Stanford hasn't had those calls made on them this year; Ed Reynolds was ejected for targeting against Arizona State. The officiating crews are turning the Conference of Champions into the Conference of Orange Slices and Juice Boxes. I'm honestly going to wake up Sunday morning to see if the conference standings apply UW with some credit for a moral victory.

At one point in the first half Brad Nessler called the game a 'flag football game'. Not sure if he was referencing the number of penalties, or the fact that players were getting cited for simply playing the game, like the 15 yards charged to Washington when Darrell Daniels made a perfectly legal hit on a Stanford cover man simply because he hit him too hard.

I digress. Noting the ineptitude of Pac-12 officiating crews is like saying Washington's new chrome helmets are shiny. I'm not saying anything new, but what people should take from the Washington loss is the idea that the program is really close to being back where they belong. Not all the way back; that may come with how things turn out in seven days' time.

Consider UW's play against Stanford Saturday night as Phase One. There's still a ton they have to work on (I'm only going to mention the Huskies' sieve-like special teams' play here), but for the first time in years UW returns to Montlake with a chip on their shoulder and a belief they can play with anyone in the country that isn't just lip service.

Twice the Huskies scored in the second half, only to be immediately matched by the Cardinal to go down two scores, only to roar back with the confidence good teams possess. Washington's up-tempo attack was like a warm glove on Price's banged-up throwing hand; he looked incredibly comfortable ratcheting up the pressure while the Cardinal wilted. In fact they had to resort to faking injuries in order to slow the Huskies down.

"I think their defensive line coach (Randy Hart) was telling their guys to sit down," Sarkisian said to UW Play-By-Play Man Bob Rondeau afterward. "I guess we're going to have to get ready for that next year."

Price, whose 33-of-48, 350-yard performance brought back memories of Marques Tuiasosopo's miracle comeback in 2000 against the Cardinal - the same game where Curtis Williams was tragically injured - was battered, bruised, busted up and basically treated like a most unwelcome visitor to Stanford Stadium. Yet he never wavered, never backed down an inch when the game was on the line.

"I thought he was an absolute stud tonight," Sarkisian said of his senior quarterback. "I thought he showed the heart that this entire team plays with but I thought Keith really exemplified that. Their goal was to try and hurt him and he stood in there like a warrior. I'm proud of him. He's done a lot for this program. I'm proud he's a leader of this program and we're going to win a lot more games because of it."

The way the game ended, with an overturned completion from Price to Kevin Smith that was at the back end of a Houdini-like effort from Price just to get the ball to his receiver, was not only anticlimactic - it was dead wrong. In one play it showed everything that is going so well for Washington right now, and what is going oh so wrong for the Pac-12 when it comes to their officials and how the directly impact outcomes.

"It was ruled a catch and to determine it not a catch they have to overrule and determine it wasn't," Sarkisian said of the play that ended any hopes the Huskies had for pulling the upset. "From my vantage point it was hard to overturn it - but again, I didn't get to sit 50 yards up in a booth and play a video game and make a call.

"It was kind of like a great movie with a bad ending."

You know what's even worse? Watching all those ridiculous trailers before you even get to the great movie. And with Saturday night's Pac-12 officiating crew, watching them operate was like watching a series of horrific trailers, just knowing that when the movie you came to see was getting to the best part the reel snaps and all of a sudden it's over. Just like that.

Let's be clear - the referees didn't take a win away from Washington. Stanford did what they needed to do to stay unbeaten; they exploited Washington's extremely poor play on special teams and always came back with an answer every time the Huskies scored. Simply put, they didn't beat themselves. The probably played too conservatively for their fans' taste by the end of the game, but the Cardinal still remain standing among the unbeaten.

But you could make a pretty persuasive argument that the game wasn't settled on the field. When asked if he was able to get a satisfactory answer to why the original ruling of a completed pass from Price to Smith was overturned, Sarkisian could only muster a muted 'No'. It's a popular refrain; in fact I can't remember one time where a particular call that could have proved decisive at the end of the game has ever been explained after the fact or put in its proper context.

Three minutes later, Washington had their answer. Not an explanation, just an answer. And actually it was a pretty incredulous response by lead referee Land Clark, who didn't even sound completely convinced while he was handing down the verdict. "The ruling is, the ball hit the ground," said Clark.

"They apparently saw something we couldn't," said Nessler, who went through every angle ESPN could find during the replay and came up with the only sane conclusion - there wasn't enough evidence to overturn.

"It's unfortunate the game had to come down to a judgment call like that," Sarkisian said. "That part was unfortunate because two good football teams battling and competing with one another, and I wish the game got won on the field and not in a booth upstairs with some guy that didn't get to feel the emotion and the hard-fought football game that the game was."

The score won't change, but undoubtedly minds were changed. ESPN's Ted Miller considered this a 'show me' game for the Huskies and their quest for respect on the national stage. For at least one night the Washington Huskies were Missouri, because they showed the country that they belong again.

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