Sarkisian, Holt Look Back to Get Ahead

Taking a quick glimpse at USC's 2002 media guide, Nick Holt has hair. Lots of it. In fact, he kind of looks like a young Incredible Hulk-era Lou Ferrigno. Steve Sarkisian doesn't look too different than he does today, so his aging must have taken place on the inside in 2001 - his first year coaching at a D1 program.

While the Washington Huskies were coming off a Rose Bowl appearance, USC was starting from scratch. They had hired Pete Carroll, who had coached in the NFL with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. Sarkisian was hired on as an offensive assistant after coaching for one year at his JC alma mater, El Camino College.

Things didn't start well. The Trojans were 2-5, losing by three to Washington at Husky Stadium mid-way through their season, and the Arizona Wildcats were driving at home. With 1:50 left on the clock and the game tied at 34, the 'Cats threw to the sidelines. USC cornerback Kris Richard picked it off and went the other way for what became the defining play for the Trojans' season.

USC went on a four-game winning streak to become bowl eligible, and while they lost to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, the tide had turned. And Sarkisian knew it.

"We had lost a lot of heartbreakers earlier that year - one right here in this stadium by a field goal," Sarkisian said Wednesday as his Huskies prepare for a showdown with USC Saturday afternoon. "It took one of those plays of a guy doing his job really well to change the mentality of a program."

Sarkisian admitted that he looks back on that initial season at USC - a 6-6 year - and draws parallels to what his staff is trying to do right now at Montlake.

"You're coming back with a veteran quarterback who you can mold an offense around," he said. "You've got some talented players on defense, like a Troy Polamalu-type guy. Your kids are fighting and competing down after down after down, but then there are some of the mental breakdowns that can get you beat. So I keep going back to see how I can fight with our guys about the urge to do something else or worry about somebody else's job. They just need to be focused on their job for that snap and then refocus on the next one. And I always go back to that year to look at that stuff."

Unfortunately for Sarkisian and the Huskies, the 2009 version of the USC Trojans bares no resemblance to the 2001 team. Starting in 2002, USC has won the Pac-10 every single year. They have finished in the AP Top-4 every year. They have made it to a BCS bowl every year.

"You're talking about one of the greatest runs in college football history," he said, matter-of-factly. "It's an unbelievable run, and in my opinion it needs to be honored more."

Sarkisian is looking to the 2001 Trojans as the blueprint of something special, and he'd love nothing more than duplicating USC's success since that year. Playing against them will be hard enough; not thinking too much about playing them before the game might be an even bigger challenge for this UW staff.

"We really just have to worry about ourselves right now," he said. "You can't get caught reminiscing right now." Sarkisian added that he will definitely say hello to the USC coaches and players pre-game, but once that whistle blows it's just another game.

"When we talk about ourselves, the challenge is always to remain humble," Sarkisian said. "That's been from Day One and that hasn't changed this week. The real challenge is to remain humble because it's a long season. Week-in and week-out, you never know. We've never changed that tune, and I think our kids have responded very well. A lot of our coaches have been there and been through similar situations. They've been following our lead on a number of issues and I think they are following our lead on this one as well."

Holt has been through it with Sarkisian, so it's not surprising that the message is a familiar one. "I know we've got a big ball game; it's the Pac-10 opener, and it just happens to be USC," he said. "I haven't really thought about all that stuff because I've been really busy preparing the kids. I'm sure as it gets closer, I'll maybe start feeling some things. But it really doesn't feel any different than LSU or Idaho, quite honestly."

But when the fans start to fill Husky Stadium on Saturday and the energy and excitement builds, the scene should be a lot more reminiscent of LSU than Idaho. And if the Washington defense can get some early three-and-outs, it just might allow the Huskies to stick around for a while.

"We have to play with a passion I know our kids can play with, and we have to execute," Sarkisian said. "I feel good about our game plan that we have in place on defense. I know coach Holt and those guys are going to get fired up. The challenge is to stay focused and to do it down after down after down and not drift off after every third or fourth play."

"I think we're getting better," added Holt. "I think there are some deficiencies there with personnel. But we'll make do. And we'll find out best things that give us the best chances to be successful. That's what we'll do as a staff. And they're playing hard. They're playing hard and they're trying to hit people, and that's the first step. Now we've just got to keep on coaching them."

So who is going to come through with that Kris Richard-like play to turn UW's fortunes toward their rich tradition? Who is going to come up with a big play against the Trojans - like Taylor Barton spelling Cody Pickett in 2001 and leading the Huskies to their win? Or like Mesphin Forrester's pick-six in 2007? Or Fred Small's touchdown in 1981 to seal a UW win on the day Marcus Allen reached the 2,000-yard rushing barrier?

It might be Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who is always up for these challenges. It might be Mason Foster, who has caused all of UW's turnovers so far this year. It could even be true freshman cornerback Desmond Trufant, who had two interceptions during practice on Wednesday.

Given the history of this staff, there's a chance that season-defining play may not come this weekend. But it will come. "When it's all said and done, we're building this program, and we're trying to make it as good a program as the seven-time Pac-10 champions," Holt said. "That's our goal. To be the best, you've got to beat the best. You've got to have good players, and you've got to practice and play with passion and do all the stuff that they do right now. We've got to get to that point consistently, and hopefully it's pretty quick here." Top Stories