John McGrath: Settling for another 7-5 season could submarine Sarkisian

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comNovember 15, 2013 

Steve Sarkisian is nine games into his fifth season as football coach at the University of Washington, and we’re still waiting for the Huskies to turn the corner.

Well, another corner.

The first corner was turned early, in 2009, soon after Sarkisian got hired to reboot a program Tyrone Willingham had unplugged. Sarkisian’s Huskies beat Idaho in a home game only Willingham could have figured out how to lose, then stunned third-ranked USC – Pete Carroll’s team – the following week in Seattle.

“Hopefully,” Sarkisian said after the 16-13 victory, “this sends a message of where we’re headed.”

The implication was the Huskies were prepared for national prominence, likely sooner than later.

Well, prominence hasn’t been achieved, either nationally or even regionally.

Sarkisian’s 2009 work in transforming the Huskies from 0-12 to 5-7 was commendable, and their 7-5 record in 2010, which included a Holiday Bowl upset of Nebraska, represented more modest progress. But then they hit a wall: 7-5 in 2011 and 7-5 in 2012. With two road games remaining, as well as a bowl opponent at a neutral site, the prospect of a third consecutive 7-5 record is not unreasonable.

Unless he’s employed at a traditional powerhouse – no need to identify the usual suspects; you know who they are – a succession of 7-5 seasons should not put a head coach’s job in jeopardy. But there’s a same-old, ho-hum look to the 2013 Huskies, especially after a 4-0 start suggested they were capable of something loftier than helping ESPN fill up its holiday-week schedule of Bowl Games For Gamblers.

It’s time for the Huskies to turn the next corner, and time for Sarkisian to show how he’s capable of more than giving an emergency tow to a program that had been mired in a ditch. It’s time for a statement victory, with the statement reading: “We’re better than 7-5.”

As statements go, granted, it’s not as stirring as John Paul Jones’ “I have not yet begun to fight!” vow on a naval ship during the Revolutionary War.

But this isn’t war, and Steve Sarkisian ain’t John Paul Jones. “We’re better than 7-5,” it seems to me, is both a noble ambition and an earnest statement.

It’s also true.

Thanks to a we’ll-play-when-the-TV-networks-tell-us-to-play schedule pushed by Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott, the Huskies and their coach won’t have to wait long to attempt their statement-making.

Friday night at 6, they’ll take on No. 13 UCLA at the Rose Bowl. When I think of UCLA and the Rose Bowl, I envision sunny afternoons turning into a majestic dusk, the San Gabriel mountains glistening, the Bruins resplendent in their powder blue jerseys and gold pants.

In terms of the sheer ambiance of college football, a UCLA game at the Rose Bowl ranks right there with Husky Stadium. But there won’t be much ambiance under the lights Friday, when UCLA takes the field for a “blackout night.” The Bruins will wear Nike-designed black jerseys and black pants with blue numbers, a color combination called “L.A. Midnight.”

L.A. Midnight? Sounds less like a football uniform than a Doors song, or the title of a crime novel, but I’m old school about jersey colors and, for that matter, Friday night college games the Creator clearly intended mankind to wage on Saturday afternoon.

It’ll be a different Rose Bowl experience for the Huskies, and it can’t turn out any worse than those on Saturdays. Last time Washington beat UCLA on the road was Nov. 11, 1995. The Huskies are 0-6 in Pasadena, Calif., since then, losing some blowouts (52-28 in 1997, Jim Lambright’s fifth season as head coach) and some heartbreakers (23-20 overtime in 1999, Rick Neuheisel’s first season as head coach).

Washington brought a 4-0 record, a 12-game winning streak, and a No. 10 national ranking to the Rose Bowl on Oct. 13, 2001.

Final score: UCLA 35, UW 13.

Washington’s history of futility at UCLA is indisputable, but it also provides a chance for the visitors to change that history before a national TV audience. It’s also a chance for some of the 38 Huskies players recruited from the L.A. area – most notably, senior quarterback Keith Price – to put on a show for the home folks.

Because the schools now compete in different divisions within the conference, Washington-UCLA never will be a full-fanged rivalry. Yet it’s got some teeth: Bruins coach Jim L. Mora is a former Huskies walk-on capable of raiding the Seattle area for such crazy talents as Myles Jack, a freshman from Bellevue who played last week as a linebacker and a running back, showing power and speed at both positions.

Such subplots are fun, but it would be wise for Sarkisian to concentrate on a more substantial task.

It’s time to beat a tough opponent on the road. It’s time to step up and assure Huskies fans that 7-5 isn’t good enough.

It’s time to turn the corner.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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