Hands in working order?
You might need to stretch ALL 10 fingers to point out all the Huskies' failures from their 24-14 loss Saturday night to Arizona State.
Form all the opinions you want – they're valid – but I want to discuss the topic that had my jaw dropping much of the night. It's a hot-button subject that can not only be traced to last year, but a trend has formed for any offense directed by Steve Sarkisian.
Fourth downs are an excuse to roll the dice.
OK, I know what everybody immediately points to when it comes to botched fourth-down calls: The second half of Notre Dame last season, which had a few of them in a UW loss in South Bend, Ind.
First, let's give a little background:
At USC, with star-studded talent in every position, the Trojans were predictably successful when they went for it on fourth down under Sarkisian, who was the offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008.
• In 2007, USC made it on 12 of 20 attempts (60-percent success rate), tying for 28th-best in the country.• In 2008, USC made it on 10 of 17 times (59-percent success rate), tying for 30th-best in the country.• Last season, even with the mistakes at Notre Dame, the Huskies were 9-of-16 (56-percent success rate), which was tied for 37th in the nation.
Let's distinguish fourth-down calls based on WANT, when the situation does not dictate rolling the dice, and NEED, when the situation does.
The calls I want to focus on, including Saturday night, are when Sarkisian WANTS to go for it.
Start the opening weekend at Brigham Young when he bypassed what would have been a 40-yard field goal attempt by Erik Folk on the first drive of the fourth quarter, and instead called a pass play on fourth-and-2. Jake Locker's pass to Jermaine Kearse fell incomplete.
After the game, Sarkisian reasoned he went for it on fourth down because he was uncertain if his offense, which had been hindered by poor field position all day, would be in position to score a touchdown the rest of the game.
Or how about last week at USC, when on fourth-and-8 from the Trojans' 38 (or what would have been a 55-yard field goal by the strong-legged Folk in nice conditions), Sarkisian put the ball in Locker's hands again – and a pass to Devin Aguilar was deflected (and could have been called a pass interference).
Sarkisian admitted after the game he knew he was going for it on the play before – on "third down."
Eventually, it was fourth-down conversion on the UW's last drive that led to a late Folk field goal, and 32-31 victory.
Which takes me to Saturday night, and the fourth-down follies of the second quarter – key early components in turning a manageable deficit to a two-touchdown margin.
• With the Huskies trailing 14-7 midway through the quarter, a Gregory Christine offensive hold at the ASU 23 instantly put the UW offense in a hole. Eventually Locker was dropped for 3-yard losses on back-to-back plays, and the Huskies faced a fourth-and-18 at the Sun Devils 31.
On came Folk for a 48-yard field goal – a reasonable option even in terrible weather conditions (ASU coach Dennis Erickson said after the game the rain was as bad as he'd ever seen in a football game).
The result? A fake field-goal attempt by holder Cody Bruns, who took off down the left sideline and fooled nobody. Two ASU defenders were there waiting to tackle him for no gain.
Sarkisian's explanation after the game: "It was a run-pass option. We just got put in the predicament there in such an in-between stage. It was fourth and long, and you don't have a lot of great calls in your play sheet for that. With the weather and the pre-game kicks, I didn't feel good about kicking the field goal from there. It was something in the game plan that we liked, and that we thought if we had the opportunity. But (ASU) defended it well."
I don't know – I've never coached a football game. But I can think of three better – safer – options off the top of my head:
1, To protect field position, squib a punt and hope to pin ASU inside the 10-yard line.2, If you're really set on advancing the ball, put the ball in Locker's hands and let him make the call in a read-option.3, Kick the field goal: Folk had been 7-for-7 coming into the game, with a long of 54 yards (being fair to Sarkisian, Folk did miss a 52-yard attempt later in the game that was wiped out by penalty, and then a 47-yarder on a second chance for his first official miss this season).
Where does a fake field goal from fourth-and-18 show up in the playbook? On page 125? Where did Sarkisian find it?
All week in practice, reporters watched the team rehearse a fake field-goal attempt to possibly use in this game. We had an idea, under the right circumstances, Sarkisian might try one.
Fourth-and-18? I just can't understand that one.
• The fake field goal at least didn't lead to ASU scoring points. But the next call – a fourth-and-5 pass from the ASU 35 yard line with 1:04 to go in the first half – did lead to a Sun Devils touchdown (Steven Threet's 20-yard strike to Mike Willie for a 21-7 lead).
Obviously in that situation, a Folk field goal attempt was probably asking too much, considering the conditions. With the Huskies still trailing by just a touchdown, and getting the ball to start the second half, wouldn't have protecting field position been the logical call?
But Sarkisian went for it – and it bit him squarely in the butt.
For the game, the Huskies were 2-of-5 on fourth-down attempts – bringing their season totals to 4-of-11, which ranks 91st in the nation.
The UW's 11 attempts ranks as the 13th-most in FBS.
Which brings me to my last point – when is too much, too much?
The issue of Sarkisian's play-calling, in general, has been brought up numerous times. As a coach, should he be doing it? I have no such qualms about it; Sarkisian really is a bright play-caller, and can devise a superb game plan.
It's the heat-of-the-moment stuff, including fourth downs, where I question whether anybody on the UW staff has the gumption – the commonsense – to cross Sarkisian when he gets in that go-for-broke mode?
Right now, those decisions are doing more harm than good.