Huskies Searching For Road Success

It's not the way Steve Sarkisian would have drawn it up. He said Monday that having a bye week after the fifth game of the season would have been preferable to the grind these last eight weeks have put on the Washington Huskies. After what was reportedly a spirited workout Sunday, Sarkisian insists his team is recharged after their week off and ready to tackle the rest of their Pac-10 schedule.

That starts with a trip to UCLA, who are winless in conference. If there was ever a time for the Huskies to pop that road cherry and exorcise the demons that have kept them from winning a league game at the Rose Bowl in nearly 15 years, this Saturday's game would appear well-suited to the task.

"Everyone feels so rejuvenated having all week long off, I mean I'm ready to go so I'm guessing everybody feels the same way," UW tight end Kavario Middleton said on Monday.

The 43-19 drubbing at the hands of Oregon feels like a world away, especially since the Ducks have also beaten USC. While they appear set to win the Pac-10, the Huskies are searching for a way to the post-season. All roads to bowl games happen to go through Los Angeles this year, and the UCLA game is a must-win if Washington expect to have a reasonable chance to play around the new year.

The team isn't thinking bowl, according to Middleton. "We're just focused on winning out, on winning all of them," he said.

Sarkisian is even more specific. "The first message is about finishing and that we are football team that has done some nice things but we've got to finish games and finish drives when we are in the red zone and finish plays better when we do, so there is a little overriding theme about finishing," he said. "But the real message is get reenergized to focus and be attentive to the details as we were earlier in the season. I think we have diminished in that area as the season has gone on."

The numbers would definitely bear that out. When Washington was 2-1, flying high after a 16-13 win over then No. 3 USC, they were scoring 27 points a game and giving up 22. Now they are scoring roughly a field goal less and giving up a touchdown more per game. They are averaging about 15 yards a game less offensively - not a huge change - but surrendering nearly 60 yards more a game on defense. Their time of possession has gone down by nearly three minutes a game. Their third-down conversion percentage, which was one of the tops in the nation after three games, has dropped 10 percent. Their third-down conversion percentage for defense, which was at 28 percent, has also dropped 10 percent. If they had stayed at their earlier levels in both statistics, they would be leading the country on offense and top-6 on defense.

"We went eight weeks and I think it showed the last three ball games we were a little sloppy," Sarkisian said. "It wasn't that we weren't trying hard, it wasn't that we didn't have a good game plan, it wasn't that our effort wasn't really good. I thought our execution and attention to details is what got sloppy the last three ball games."

As it is, the season has been somewhat unkind to the Huskies as it has progressed. The crazy ending that produced a win against Arizona has been offset by rough endings at both Notre Dame and Arizona State. "We've gotten a little bit sloppy, a little bit spotty in all areas of our football team so this opportunity for us to get re-energized to focus on the details that ultimately are the difference between winning and losing," Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian could look to Rick Neuheisel - who will be on the opposite sideline Saturday - for advice, as Neuheisel is the last coach at UW to have a winning record and the last coach to finish the season ranked. Neuheisel, who was fired in 2003, never had a losing season on Montlake. Sarkisian and Neuheisel aren't golfing buddies, but the new UW Head Coach is very familiar with Neuheisel's Offensive Coordinator - Norm Chow. Chow was Sarkisian's coach at BYU, and later his mentor at USC. That familiarity might serve Washington Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt well, especially since Holt was also on that USC staff when Chow was there.

"It'll be interesting to watch kind of the chess match that takes place," Sarkisian said. "Norm is obviously a great offensive coordinator a tremendous playcaller and he's going to challenge the things that we've seen this year, so we've got to make sure we are sound in everything we are doing.''

As beat up as Washington has been the past few weeks, the bye week did come at the right time - even if Sarkisian doesn't think it came at the best time. The reason is Jake Locker. Locker suffered a thigh bruise early against Oregon, and if the Huskies had played last week Locker would not have played. Losing your starting quarterback is not included in the formula for success when you are trying to bounce back from adversity. While labelled as 'questionable' for Saturday's game, Locker went out Monday afternoon and put in what appeared to be a normal practice session.

"We're not going to force him back on the field if he's not healthy and ready to go," Sarkisian said of Locker. "I would anticipate that he would be, but it remains day to day."

"I expect to be out there," Locker added.

Someone who does not appear day-to-day right now is linebacker E.J. Savannah, who suffered another break to his already broken hand. "He's a very tough kid and he's been through a lot of the physical pain from that thing already this year, so that's why I don't count anything out," Sarkisian said of the senior from Bellevue. "But realistically-speaking, it would probably be advantageous for him to not go this week and then be able to go versus Oregon State."

Despite the physical obstacles, Sarkisian believes the Huskies are in a good position to take these last four games head on. "The kids are very upbeat," he said. "I think they realize they've got a great opportunity ahead of them this week and also the final four games of the season. I feel like we're refreshed as a coaching staff, refreshed as a football team. And anxious to get going."
Notes:
Recruiting in full swing: With 21 verbal commitments for the 2010 class, the Husky coaching staff got on the road last Thursday and Friday to watch games, visit with high school coaches and get the word out about the program and the direction they are headed. According to Sarkisian - who said his staff saw at least 30 football games over that weekend stretch - the response has been enthusiastic. "It was good to get out to recruit and do all the things, but what we gathered as a coaching staff, not just myself, is the reception was great," he said. "People are excited about Husky football. Not just in the state of Washington, which it obviously is. But get into Hawaii and California and people are excited about what we are doing, which is refreshing to hear as a coach because you feel like what we are doing is the right thing and we are on the right track, so that was refreshing to get out and recruit."

Boyles in the depth: Wide receiver Anthony Boyles is in the depth chart for UCLA, but it's not at wide receiver. During the bye week, the 6-3, 197-pound redshirt freshman tried his hand at cornerback, and it looks like for this week at least, he's found a home. "Well, he did some things just from a sheer athleticism standpoint last week," Sarkisian said of Boyles. "Now as we get into game plan mode it's going to be how he can handle the subtleties of the defense, the mixing of coverages. He's obviously very talented, he's athletic, he's physical, he's long, which is a nice matchup for us because (UCLA receivers Taylor) Embree and (Nelson) Rosario are both nice, tall receivers for them so it will be interesting to see how he can grasp the overall game plan as we head into this week of really implementing a gameplan and how he can respond and execute it.''

Getting the young guys going: The bye week allowed Sarkisian and his staff time to look at some of the true freshmen and other younger kids that are the future of this UW program. He talked about some of them on Monday. "Hopefully we can get Jordan Wallace going," he said. "I thought he had a nice week last week. (Anthony) Boyles is an obvious one. I think you're going to see more of Demitrius Bronson as we keep going. I think you're going to see Johri Fogerson get back into the fold, a guy we need to get going. I think you're going to see Dorson Boyce more at tight end. And I think you'll see more of our young defensive ends Talia Crichton and Andru Pulu, I think those are two guys that are going to show up."

Bruins to throw back the clock: UCLA is planning on wearing throwback jerseys from 1967 on Saturday. You can view the uniform here.

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