Sark Seven-Win Steve No More

SEATTLE - Black Friday. I'm sure it wasn't a nod to the annual post-Thanksgiving shopping craze, but it was a little funny to see the Washington in black to finish out their 2013 regular season - call it 'dark humor'. The Huskies were able to escape the 106th Apple Cup with a hard-fought 27-17 win over Washington State, and at times it was hard to tell who was UW's bigger enemy. The Cougars?

Or themselves?

It wasn't quite the ass-kicking center Mike Criste had hoped for post-game in Corvallis after the Huskies hung 69 on Oregon State, but it was still monumental for a lot of reasons - chief among them Steve Sarkisian's successful ascent beyond Mount Seven Wins. It took him four years and countless tanks of oxygen and sherpas, but he finally made it. It sure looked like Sark would conquer it last year up 18 in the fourth quarter in Pullman, but it was not to be.

It was 2012's collapse, coupled with Washington's road woes this season, that kept the chatter at a medium boil. Could Sarkisian ever slay the seven-headed beast? Well, his Huskies put Washington State to the sword Friday, and with the win settled any doubts that he's ready to move on from the seven-win talk.

"I'm just tired of answering questions about it quite honestly," a happy Sarkisian said post-game. "We're a better team today than we were a year ago, and a year ago we were a better team than we were the year before that. Sometimes games go the way they go and you don't get the call or you don't get the catch or you make the one bad call as a coach…but that doesn't mean you're not a good football team, you're not a better team than the year before.

"We're a good team. We played hard, we've been playing hard all year. We've had three lousy quarters, quite honestly, this season. But outside of that our guys have played good football - we haven't been perfect, but we've played good, we've played hard."

One of those 'three lousy quarters' was the second stanza in Tempe when Arizona State out-scored Washington 26-0 en route to a 53-24 thrashing of the Huskies that ominous October afternoon. It was that same day where Sarkisian lost a ton of credit with Washington fans that had, right or wrong, believed the annual blowouts had been eliminated from Sark's coaching equation.

But give credit for Sarkisian and his resolve. He's become the Steve Perry of college football coaches, Washington the Pac-12's version of Journey. The never stopped believing.

Sarkisian's fortitude was tested big-time at Apple Cup intermission. The Huskies were down 10-3 and their offense was seemingly stuck in the mud. Keith Price had come into the game as the fifth-year senior that would right the wrong from the 2012 Apple Cup and go out in a blaze of glory in his final Husky Stadium appearance. But that sizzle fizzled out quickly after UW's opening drive.

Washington was first on the scoreboard after a 54-yard drive netted them a Travis Coons career-long 48-yard field goal. But from that point going forward, their next six drives totaled 85 yards, and two of them ended in turnovers - a Price fumble and interception on a deep pass to Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He had two first-half fumbles, the first fumbles for him the entire season.

Price, who sat out the Oregon State game due to a shoulder injury, was supposed to be engineering a happier finale. All he got for his first half efforts was eyefuls of crimson and gray and a hint of suspicion from his head coach. Was Keith ready to handle the occasion?

"I thought the first half…you know these Senior Night games - I remember Matt Leinart's senior game and we're playing UCLA and he starts tearing up in the tunnel," Sarkisian said. "I think the first half was just hard for Keith. There's so much going on - he's coming off an injury, he didn't play last week, he wants to play great - he was just a little bit off. Not so much physically, he was just off a little mentally.

"It's the Apple Cup, it's Husky Stadium, it's Senior Day - there's so much emotion that goes into it I don't blame him for feeling a little antsy or out of sorts."

During the halftime break I heard the cat-calls. I read the fans' responses, I got the texts. Everyone wanted Price out. Stick a fork in him, he's done. He's clearly hurting more than he's letting on. Whatever is going on with him, he's just not ready.

Then the second half happened.

For some reason, the third quarter has been Washington's ultimate panacea, the cure for all ills. Going into the Apple Cup Washington had out-scored their opponents 160-65 in the 15 minutes that quarter. Ironically, outside the Idaho State game the Huskies have scored a touchdown in every opening third quarter drive of the season - and the Apple Cup was to be no exception.

Guided by Price's now-steady hand and the sheer brutishness of Bishop Sankey, Washington came out of the tunnel a different team - a team that somehow knew it was going to be just fine even if it was going to take a bit of convincing the 71,753 that were watching inside Husky Stadium.

Sankey's 40-yard screen and go proved to be a catalyst on third down as it changed momentum early in the second half.

"If we had kept them pinned back it was going to increase the pressure on them and certainly the tempo of the second half," WSU Head Coach Mike Leach said post-game. "Then they converted and that was a huge play for them."

Another Sankey run put Washington on the doorstep of the Cougars' red zone and then Price went up top to find another security blanket - the 6-foot-6 variety in junior tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins - for six. Within 200 seconds, the Huskies were back in it tied at 10.

It wasn't all on the offense; it was now time for some of the unheralded defenders to take center stage. Converted tight end Evan Hudson had the biggest play of his young defensive career with a 15-yard sack of WSU quarterback Connor Halliday, a play where it seemed like Hudson could have pushed Halliday clear into the end zone if it hadn't been for Halliday's legs giving way.

And just like that, Price and the Huskies' offense found themselves back in action - this time at the WSU 38 and driving. Coincidentally enough, 38 was also the number of yards Sankey needed to break Corey Dillon's 17-year single season rushing mark.

Sometimes great coaching comes down to great adjustments, or great personnel decisions. Sometimes a great coaching move is just getting the heck out of the way and letting greatness reveal itself. That's exactly what Sarkisian did when he gave the ball to Sankey six-straight times. The junior from Spokane repaid Sark's faith in him with six points and two Washington all-time records on the same scoring play.

Sarkisian talks a lot about the 'Football Gods' and tempting fate and playing the game the right way. He said post-game that he didn't know anything about the records at the time he handed the game plan to Sankey and said, 'Go ahead, Bishop…take it from here'.

"If the record was going to happen, it was meant to happen," Sarkisian said, ever the pigskin philosopher. "It was going happen just because of us doing what we do and playing the way we're capable of playing."

And perhaps that is the simple secret behind Sarkisian getting to eight wins; playing Husky Football. Maybe it doesn't need to be dissected or drilled down any more than that.

Leach had an interesting comment post-game when asked if, in retrospect, he should have tried a long field goal attempt to put the Cougars potentially up 13-3 before halftime.

"I don't have any retrospect," he said, matter-of-factly.

That may be Leach's answer for dealing with the Football Gods, but it's clear Sarkisian is starting to absorb the lessons five years as a head coach has afforded him. And most importantly, he's learned to trust himself at the crucial moments. He never doubted for one second Keith Price would settle down and play the way Keith Price plays football when he's enjoying the game. And as the Gods would have it, it was Price who would cap off his final regular season with the touchdown to seal the win.

Sarkisian never doubted his defense would come up big when Washington State made their fourth-quarter surge. True to script, it was another senior enjoying his final game at Husky Stadium - Greg Ducre - who came up with the theft that led to Price's touchdown.

And at the end of it all, Sarkisian certainly enjoyed the final score almost as much as getting past that seventh win.

Just don't ask him about it any more.


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