SEATTLE – For all former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian accomplished in his first game as Washington head coach, his greatest coup may be this: He’s already given the Huskies more hope than they’ve had in the past two seasons combined.
“Last year, we had the talent, we just didn’t have coaches to showcase it. Now, we have coaches that actually do that,” running back Chris Polk said late Saturday night, after Washington outgained and surprised No. 11 LSU, yet lost 31-23 because of costly mistakes that ensured the UW’s 15th consecutive loss.
“I think we showcased it (Saturday) that we actually have players. We’re real deep. We will be good for years to come.”
No one was saying that before Sarkisian arrived from Southern California as a Rose Bowl-winning offensive coordinator, to replace Tyrone Willingham and clean out the coaching staff.
Saturday, the 35-year-old Sarkisian and his staff were even more than they were advertised to be. They and their revitalized players had the Husky Stadium crowd of almost 70,000 rocking – and staying well beyond halftime, for a change.
The third-youngest head coach in the country when he was hired in January, one year older than Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian double-pumped his fists and high-fived players on the sidelines.
Fiery defensive coordinator Nick Holt looked like a caged lion on the sidelines, stomping and yelling while continually being reminded by officials to get off the field. Holt was often out to the yard-line numbers painted on the field to congratulate and encourage his men, who twice popped LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson with hits that snapped back his head and sent him to the sidelines woozy.
Sarkisian said all preseason his offense would be an I-formation, pro-style copy of USC’s machine that would have dynamic quarterback Jake Locker in a more traditional mode of drop-back passing. Against LSU, Washington showed myriad looks – five wide-receiver spread formations, Locker in speed-option mode, even fullbacks as wideouts.
Washington had 478 total yards of offense, 115 more than their average per game in 2008.
If not for 11 penalties, two crucial turnovers – an interception by Locker returned for a touchdown by Jacob Cutrera when Locker said he never saw the LSU linebacker, and a lost fumble at the LSU 4 by Polk – plus a dropped pass and a botched route by two receivers in the end zone on consecutive plays late, Washington could be celebrating its first win over a ranked opponent from a BCS conference in six years.
Instead, it has this encouraging debut to lean on entering Saturday’s home game against Idaho, which won its opener over New Mexico State 21-6 on Saturday. It’s a prime chance for Washington to end the losing streak before it ties Oregon State’s conference record for futility at 16 straight losses. USC arrives the following week for a reunion with Sarkisian.
“There’s no moral victories, but I’m very proud of our football team,” Sarkisian said. “They played hard, they played physical, they played through adversity, they competed until the last second on the clock and that’s all we could have asked for coming into this ball game. I think the initial goal from what I said earlier in the week, is when this game is done that the other team respects us and I think they respect the Washington Husky football team.”
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