Steve Sarkisian insists he liked the play. Well, duh. He called the play, so we can presume he liked it.
But when the Huskies’ head coach breaks down the film of his team’s 43-19 bow-down to Oregon on Saturday, Sarkisian might change his mind about the red-zone strategy that helped turn a potential touchdown into a momentum-swinging, emotionally deflating interception.
In case you’re just tuning in: With nine minutes remaining before halftime, the Huskies were trailing, 8-3, thanks to a blocked punt that mitigated the defense’s stellar effort in containing Oregon’s every-which-way-at-once option attack. Washington was poised to complete a scoring drive that began with a 34-yard Chris Polk run and continued with Jermaine Kearse’s fabulous catch of a 26-yard pass from Jake Locker.
Another Locker completion, to Devin Aguilar, gave Washington a first-and-goal opportunity inside the Ducks 5-yard line. In other words, Oregon had the Huskies precisely where it wanted them.
Three weeks after their failure to convert any of seven goal-line snaps into a touchdown at Notre Dame, the Huskies were back to their wasteful ways, botching another easy touchdown opportunity by attempting virtually everything in their short-yardage playbook but the most obvious play – lining up Locker in a shotgun formation and giving him some room to run forward.
Locker is 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds. When he’s moving at full force, he can be a load to bring down. He’s the best player on his team, and on most days, he’s the best player on the field.
The best player on the field should make a difference during the most pivotal sequence of an important game, but instead of relying on Locker’s legs on first-and-goal, Sarkisian put him in a position to roll out and throw to tight end Chris Izbicki.
On second down, running back Demetrius Bronson – subbing for Chris Polk, who was on the sideline with a twisted ankle – carried for 2 yards on a stretch play. On third down, Bronson ran again, but was stopped for 1 yard.
That brought up fourth down, at the Oregon 1. Staying true to his aggressive impulses, Sarkisian shunned the sure-thing field goal that would have cut the Ducks’ lead to 8-6.
The gamble made sense, because a even a failed fourth-down play figured to give Oregon the ball on the cusp of its own goal line.
What didn’t make sense was Locker running to his right, and looking for somebody open in the end zone, and upon failing to find somebody in end zone, throwing the ball anyway. Ducks safety Javes Lewis picked it off and promptly rolled over for a touchback.
Instead of a touchdown, or even a field goal, the Huskies had nothing. And instead of taking possession a few feet from their end zone, the Ducks were at the 20-yard line.
We’ll never know how much the squandered second-quarter touchdown opportunity cost the Huskies. Oregon is a quicker, stronger, and faster team; it’s possible – probable, even – that the Ducks’ evident superiority on offense, defense and special teams would have revealed itself over three hours.
On the other hand, USC is a better team than Washington, and the Huskies were able to patiently slug it out with the Trojans before adrenaline took over in the fourth quarter.
All we know is this: Had the Huskies converted that first-and-goal into a touchdown, they would’ve regained the lead in a game they were dominating on the stat sheet
“We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot every time we got close to the end zone, and I don’t know why we were doing it,” Aguilar said afterward, referring to both the second-quarter breakdown in the red zone and a first-quarter drive that found the Huskies with a first-and-goal inside the Oregon 10. They went backward from there, and were forced to settle for Erik Folk’s 33-yard field goal.
“We should be scoring touchdowns,” Aguilar continued. “We had been running the ball down their throat all day, but we just couldn’t execute and move the ball in the red zone.”
The head coach volunteered this thought: “With me as a play-caller, and Jake running the offense, maybe we’re both trying too hard. …
“We’re going to have some growing pains and, obviously, this was one of them. The challenge for us, and for Jake, is to learn from these games and learn from this style of play and where’s the happy medium? Where can he take the running style he had previously and where can he fit it in this scheme that we’re running?”
As Sarkisian analyzes all that went wrong Saturday, he might note what Oregon did right on the two occasions the Ducks had first-and-goal. Quarterback Jaremiah Masoli took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff to running back LeMichael James, and trotted into the end zone without a defender so much as touching him.
The Oregon offense is renowned for its sophisticated option packages and the artful-dodger quarterback who operates the scheme – “it’s very similar to having 12 guys out there,” Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt put it the other day – but there was nothing about those goal-line touchdowns Sarkisian can’t incorporate in the UW playbook.
Line up Locker in a shotgun, fake a handoff to a running back sweeping right, then watch Locker run it up the gut for six points. If Sarkisian had called that play at Notre Dame, the Huskies’ record before Saturday would’ve been 4-3. If Sarkisian had called that play against Oregon, the Huskies record today might be 5-3.
I’m not asking for Locker to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Just allow him to be himself. Let him run for a yard. Let him cross the goal line and amble into the end zone. He’ll know what not to do next.