TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...WASHINGTON HUSKIES
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
When last seen, the Washington Huskies had just concluded what seemed to be a very successful audition for inclusion into the Arena Football League. The occasion was the Alamo Bowl last December 29 at San Antonio, when a whopping 123 points were posted on the scoreboard between the Huskies and Baylor.
Unfortunately, 67 of those points were scored by Robert Griffin III and the Waco-based Bears.
And, more unfortunately for U-Dub, future schedules do not call for dates vs. the Iowa Barnstormers or San Jose SaberCats. Although if the Pac-12 decides to initiate a parallel Arena Football component to its traditional gridiron format (as college conferences often do with indoor track and field in addition to the outdoor version), the Huskies ought to feel right at home.
Not that any of this made HC Steve Sarkisian feel any better after that Alamo Bowl shootout vs. Baylor. So putrid and unacceptable was the Huskies' defensive effort that night, when U-Dub allowed nearly 800 yards of total offense (777 to be exact), that Sarkisian was compelled to force an old friend, defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who had served with Sarkisian when both were on Pete Carroll's Southern Cal staff, to walk the plank after that humiliation.
Sarkisian didn't stop at Holt, either, as safeties coach Jeff Mills and LB Cox Mike Cox also received their pink slips.
The Baylor game, however, was merely the final straw in a season-long meltdown of the U-Dub "D" that had regressed alarmingly from the previous two seasons. Last fall, the Huskies finished near the depths of national stats, ranking 106th in total "D" and 108th in scoring (at 35.9 ppg), neither of which was acceptable to Sarkisian. UW was also on the short end of another 60+-point bomb dropped upon it by Stanford earlier in the season (a 65-21 Cardinal win at Palo Alto in mid-October) and Nebraska lit up Holt's defense for 51 at Lincoln in an early-season shootout won by the Cornhuskers.
Sources claim that Holt tried and mostly failed with a variety of different schemes last season when the Husky stop unit suffered with a youthful platoon that had its problems filling the roles of playmakers such as Donald Butler and Mason Foster, who keyed Holt's first two defenses in Seattle. Although's Holt's continual haranguing about the inexperience of his platoon rang very hollow with U-Dub backers who weren't in the mood to hear those sorts of excuses in the third year of the Sarkisian regime. Holt's bellyaching also reminded many within sight of the Space Needle of Ty Willingham's similar laments that were eventually regarded as lame excuses by the demanding Husky fan base a few years earlier.
Replacing Holt this fall will be Justin Wilcox, regarded as one of the up-and-comers in the business with a successful defensive track record at Boise State and Tennessee. Pac-12 sources also note that Holt's ultra-intense demeanor might have been wearing on his troops; if that's the case, the (much) more mild-mannered Wilcox should prove a welcome relief.
We're talking about all of this because the Sarkisian regime is apparently not going to fool around when something seems to be amiss. Which, in truth, has pleased the U-Dub fan base that still has reason to believe "Sark" could be a modern-day version of Jim Owens (right) or Don James, under whose leadership the Huskies scaled some great heights in the last half-century. Despite the bowl loss vs. Baylor, Sarkisian's U-Dub now has back-to-back postseason bids and winning records, a long way from the 0-12 mess Sarkisian inherited from Willingham after the 2008 campaign.
What Sarkisian seems to be providing, which Husky backers also greatly appreciate, is stability. Indeed, of all of the major programs in the country, none has swung from as many wild extremes as has Washington over the past fifty years, which has caused quite a rollercoaster ride for the support base. The Huskies have been good enough to win several Rose Bowls and even a shared national championship over that extended span of time, but have also recorded some wretched teams, none worse that Willingham's winless disaster four years ago. That humiliating effort concluded perhaps the darkest period in modern U-Dub history, when the program made a series of grievous errors in the wake of Rick Neuheisel's controversial dismissal following the 2002 campaign.
It was the legendary Owens, however, who eventually wrote the book on wild swings of the pendulum, including striking some of the most-important blows in the history of West Coast football.
None of those might have been more important than the 1960 Rose Bowl, when the 9-1 Huskies, ranked 8th, were a 6-point underdog vs. Big Ten champ and 6th-ranked Wisconsin. The game was the last in the then-contracted series between the Big Ten and West Coast schools, the latter having scrambled and re-organized from the final days of the scandal-ridden Pacific Coast Conference. The new league, the AAWU, was its successor, but the future of the Big Ten vs. the West in Pasadena seemed very much up in the air. Mostly because the Pacific Coast teams had lost 12 of previous 13 Rose Bowls and were getting tired of their champions being overwhelmed by the Big Ten, as was the case once again the previous New Year's Day when Iowa had routed Cal, 38-12.
Before the course of history could be changed, however, Washington struck a blow for the much-maligned Pacific Coast that New Year's Day in 1960. To the astonishment of over 100,000 fans in Pasadena, Owens' Huskies tore Wisconsin to pieces, 44-8. Big days from U-Dub HB/KR George Fleming and one-eyed QB Bob Schloredt keyed the rout.
To prove that result was no fluke, Owens had his Huskies back in the Rose Bowl the next year, this time against a big, slow, but powerful Minnesota team led by monstrous NG Tom Brown, who threw around offensive linemen like rag dolls and finished second to Navy's Joe Bellino in the Heisman trophy voting. The Gophers had already been awarded the unofficial national championship (remember, the final polls in those days were taken before the bowl games), but in a preview of how many Rose Bowls would eventually look in the '70s and '80s, the slowish, conservative Gophers, with a rudimentary aerial game, fell behind 17-0 at halftime and could never get closer than the 17-7 final score.
The Huskies' Schloredt, who had missed much of the regular season with a shoulder injury, won his second straight Rose Bowl as a starter, although many after the game were instead talking about the hijinks of the nearby students from Cal Tech, who had infiltrated Washington's halftime card stunts and altered their spelling to "Cal Tech" whenever the cards were turned.
Those were also the last days of one-platoon football, in which Owens' teams excelled. As they figured to do, as Owens, who had played for Bud Wilkinson and Oklahoma and coached under Bear Bryant at Texas A&M, was well-versed in the sort of "death march" preparation immortalized by the Bear at College Station. Owens' superbly-conditioned teams, trained in a boot-camp atmosphere, would often simply wear out the opposition in the fourth quarter. The full change back to two-platoon football in 1964 signaled a downturn in Owens' prowess.
The career of "The Big Fella" in Seattle would endure until 1974, and though the Huskies never again reached those early heights under Owens, his teams could still come up with occasional big efforts. The 1963 team was not as accomplished as Owens' earlier Rose Bowl entries, but, led by QB Bill Douglass and HB Dave Kopay, an early-November 22-7 win at Seattle over Southern Cal turned out to be the decider in the AAWU race and keyed another Pasadena trip. The following year, in an afternoon game at the L.A. Coliseum on Halloween, the Huskies rallied behind backup QB Todd Hullin to beat SC again, 14-13, eventually costing the Trojans the Rose Bowl berth, in a game this writer attended before donning a "Thunderbird the Eagle" costume for trick-or-treat duties that night.
Owens was at his big-game best again in 1966, eventually denying another L.A.-based team of a Rose Bowl trip, only this time it was Gary Beban and UCLA, which rumbled into Seattle at 7-0 and ranked third in the country, behind only Notre Dame and Michigan State in the polls. As usual, it came up rainy in Seattle that early November day, but with the score at 3-3, Jim Sartoris' 80-yard kickoff return helped set up Jeff Jordan's 1-yard TD buck and staked the Huskies to a 10-3 lead. The U-Dub defense, led by DE Todd Greenlee, NG Mike Maggart, and LBs George Jugum and Cliff Coker, did the rest, flustering Beban and holding the Uclans to 33 points beneath their scoring average. Owens, who had stewed for a year after UCLA coach Tommy Prothro had dusted off his notorious "Z-streak" trick play (resulting in a 60-yard Beban-to-Dick Witcher TD pass) in the previous year's 28-24 loss at the L.A. Coliseum, had his revenge in a 16-3 win, a result that would eventually knock the Bruins out of their second straight New Year's trip to Pasadena.
Owens' later years, however, were often struggles. The big Oklahoman was slow to adapt to the evolving passing offenses that began to dominate the West Coast; not until QB Sonny Sixkiller, a full-blooded Cherokee, arrived in 1970 did the Huskies truly enter the modern era.
Along the way, Owens' program was rocked by racial tension, including a forgettable 1969 season in which U-Dub lost its first nine games, avoiding a winless season only by beating equally wretched Washington State in the Apple Cup finale. In late October, Owens suspended four black members of the team (including spokesman RB Harvey Blanks, shown at left in a 7-7 tie vs. Cal in 1968), who, along with nine other black Huskies who didn't travel for fear of their safety, were all absent for a 57-14 shellacking administered by Prothro's UCLA on November 1. By the end of the season, all but Blanks had been reinstated, but not before Owens' daughter Kathy had been forced off of the road in Seattle and roughed up by four men, two white and two black, one of whom, after asking asked if her name was Owens, having pulled back her hair and struck her in the face.
Owens, however, remembered the beating that Prothro's Bruins had heaped upon his helpless and shorthanded team in '69. In the rematch the next November at Seattle, the Huskies were bloodthirsty, and when they had the chance in the 4th Q, Owens poured it on, ordering long bombs, two-point-conversion tries, and an onside kick, all in the final minutes of a game long since decided, blatantly running up the score as the lead mushroomed to 61-12 before a late UCLA score made the final 61-20. The Sixkiller (right) teams of the early '70s compiled three straight winning records and a 22-10 overall mark as the program momentarily revived.
But UW collapsed again in 1973 to a 2-9 mark, and Owens' last hurrah in Seattle waited until the next year. Owens' last Husky team in '74 team was only 5-6, but it avenged a 58-0 loss to Oregon the previous season by destroying the Ducks in the rematch at Husky Stadium, 66-0, the biggest one-season reversal of scorelines in NCAA history. Owens' ground game piled up 338 yards behind TB Mike Vicino and bruising, 250-lb. FB Robin Earl, just moved from TE, and held the helpless Ducks to only 55 yards of offense and two first downs all afternoon.
In retrospect, we can say that Owens, who retired after '74, was not a guy to begrudge.
Although the greatest sustained Husky success would come under Don James, who arrived from Kent State and succeeded Owens in 1975. Only two of James' last 16 teams in Seattle missed out on a bowl, and among James' 10 postseason wins were four Rose Bowl triumphs. One of those, a 34-14 romp past Michigan in the 1992 renewal, gave the Huskies a share of the national title with Dennis Erickson's Miami Hurricanes.
With a 153-57-2 record over 18 seasons, James has set the standard that Sarkisian is trying to match. And no one has to tell "Sark" that the sort of defense played by last year's team won't cut it.
Expect Wilcox to make schematic changes from the Holt defenses, including more-liberal use of 3-4 looks that should be better-equipped to deal with many of the spread offenses now employed in the Pac, not to mention an apparent better fit for the personnel on hand. Seven starters and most key reserves are back in the mix, plus a couple of hotshot newcomers who will be pressing for playing time off the bat.
Still, some of the departures were key, as stalwart linemen Alameda Ta'amu (4th round draft pick of the Steelers) and Everette Thompson, both three-year starters, plus MLB Cort Dennison, have graduated, and leave big shoes to be filled.
Look for a couple of sophs, DE Josh Shirley (left, who flashed big-time pass rush potential late last season), and 323-lb. NT Danny Shelton, to step into featured roles along the line. The 235-lb. Shirley, with 8 1/2 sacks, provides Wilcox with lots of flexibility, including the possibility of making him a "stand up" pass rusher in a potential hybrid DE/LB role in Wilcox's new-look defense.
Meanwhile, Wilcox was juggling personnel at the LB spots in spring, as converted sr. safety Nate Fellmer was moved to an OLB spot, while one of last season's starting outside backers, soph John Timu, has been moved inside. Touted true frosh Ryan McDaniel, a So Cal product (North Torrance High), could get in the mix at MLB if beyond the knee woes that limited him in spring following his early enrollment.
The strength of the platoon could be in the secondary where three starters return, including honors candidates in sr. CB Desmond Trufant (right) and jr. SS Sean Parker. The top prize of the recent recruiting haul, Shaq Thompson, made a late switch from Cal (where brother Syd'Quan starred) and was regarded as the nation's top safety prospect, so expect to see him on the field (maybe in double-duty, as he was also an accomplished runner and receiver in high school).
With the exception of massive NT Shelton, it's worth noting that Wilcox will be fielding a mostly-undersized platoon, counting instead upon quickness and pursuit ability which was sorely lacking in the bowl loss to Baylor. Let's see if Wilcox's scheming is an improvement upon Holt's, which went sour last season.
We've been talking about the defense because there are fewer questions regarding an offense that returns seven starters and several key backups from last year's strike force that scored 33.4 ppg (ranking 25th nationally) and moved consistently vs. almost everybody.
Any questions regarding the post-Jake Locker era at Montlake were answered in the affirmative last fall by jr. QB Keith Price (left), who proved no drop-off from the new Tennessee Titans QB by completing a school-record 66.9% of his passes for 33 TDs. Price can also make plays with his feet as the perfect triggerman for Sarkisian's multiple offensive looks. Moreover, Price outplayed RG III in the Alamo Bowl, suggesting the Husky QB is not spooked by the big stage.
Workhorse RB Chris Polk (1488 YR last year) departed for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining; concerns about a degenerative shoulder condition contributed to him not being drafted, although the Eagles have gladly added him as free-agent for summer camp. But Pac-12 scouts don't believe the infantry will suffer much, if any, drop-off with jr. Jessie Callier (right; 260 YR and 5.5 ypc LY) and soph Bishop Sankey (6.7 ypc in limited work last fall) finally getting their chances to shine. Where Sarkisian might miss Polk, however, is in his ability to gouge out the tough yards between the tackles; Callier and Sankey are good dancers who have the quicks to get to the edge, but Sark (who still calls the plays for the strike force) and o.c. Eric Kiesau might be looking for another alternative to do some of the grunt work in which Polk was more than happy to oblige.
Price loses top two receiving targets Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguiar from last season, but again sources don't expect much dropoff, especially since the Price-to-soph Kasen Williams combo could emerge as one of the best on the coast. Williams (left), last year's ballyhooed recruit, provided a sneak preview last fall when catching 36 passes with 6 TDs, and he and another soph, 6'6, 258-lb. TE Austin Saferian-Jenkins (41 catches LY), figure to improve upon those numbers this fall. Sources say the roster is filled with other capable targets; also watch jr. James Johnson, who caught 28 passes a year ago and could flourish in an expanded role, and frosh Jaydon Mickens, a one-time USC commit who eventually picked the Huskies over Oregon and Oklahoma State.
Four returning starters could have been available along the OL, but G Colin Porter had to give up football because of shoulder issues, while last year's other starting G, soph Colin Tanigawa, suffered a torn ACL late in the 2011 campaign and is hoping to be ready for this fall. Replacing graduated LT Senio Kelemete, an Arizona Cardinals draftee who ably protected the backsides of both Price and Jake Locker, will be key, although the line still has its anchor with sr. C Drew Schaefer, one of the Pac-12's best.
Sarkisian is also scrambling to find a pair of new kickers; replacing PK Erik Folk, a three-year starter whose clutch last-second kicks kicks beat USC in 2009 & '10, will likely be juco addition Travis Coons. Top kick returner Kevin Smith, also a WR, has been slow to recover from an ACL tear suffered just before the Alamo Bowl. Look for RBs Callier and Sankey to each give it a go as the featured kick returners, while WR Kasen Williams could emerge as the coast's top punt return threat.
Remember, too, that on-campus Husky Stadium is receiving a much-needed makeover (digital rendering at right), unavailable this fall and perhaps for 2013 as well. But don't feel bad for U-Dub or its fans, as in the interim the Huskies will be calling the NFL Seahawks' plush Century Link Field their home. Spread-wise, watch out for streaks; Sarkisian's Huskies have had five pointspread runs of three or more, wins and losses, over the past two seasons.
There are no layups, save perhaps Sept. 15 foe Portland State, on the front-loaded 2012 slate that includes a trip to LSU on September 8 and a three-week gauntlet of Stanford-Oregon-USC before the campaign reaches midseason. Sarkisian would be doing well to be sitting at 3-3 entering the October 20 game at Arizona.
Summary...Sarkisian has brought the Huskies a long way since taking over for Ty Willingham in 2009, but the jump from being competitive to the next level up the ladder is going to be a tough one. Sarkisian's offense, led by QB Keith Price, figures to give UW a puncher's chance against everybody on the schedule, but unless new d.c. Justin Wilcox coaxes more from the stop unit, the Huskies are going to keep bumping their heads on the ceiling. Oregon has also remained far beyond U-Dub's reach the past few years, and this season's schedule for Sarkisian's troops is no picnic. Still, there's probably another minor bowl in the Huskies' immediate future, with Wilcox's defense the X-factor in a possible run at something better this fall.
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