NCF Nation: Justin Wilcox


LOS ANGELES -- When the day comes that USC football needs a culture change, touchdowns will be worth 10 points, swine will take to flight and I’ll win a Brad Pitt look-alike contest.

USC football is a culture unto itself. It knows what it is with its 11 national championships, 32 bowl wins and six Heisman Trophy winners. Changing coaches doesn't have to be synonymous with changing culture, especially after you won 10 games the previous season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNew USC coach Steve Sarkisian is embracing the school's standard for winning.
Perhaps a culture restoration might be in order, however, following a tumultuous 2013 that fractured the fan base and divided the devout.

Enter Steve Sarkisian, a top lieutenant of the Pete Carroll era who left to make his mark in the Pacific Northwest and returns to Troy unfazed by the championship-or-bust mentality.

"All of these guys come here to be the best, and that reminded me why I came back here. I want to be the best," Sarkisian said. "This place breeds that environment, that culture. That jumps out at you the moment you are on campus.

"You can go back 50 years of USC football. Every decade they have gone on a run: The 2000s and the run that Pete [Carroll] had; the 90s and what Coach [John] Robinson was able to do; The 80s, the era there with Rodney Peete and everything, and the early 80s what they were doing into the 70s with Coach [John] McKay and the run that he had and into the 60s, and it goes on. I just feel like now is our time. We’re about due for another run. Here we go, and we’ve got half the decade left to do it. I have a firm belief that we can because history tells us that we should."

Of course, that run can’t start until the Trojans officially kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State. In the meantime, there is only so much the new coaching staff can do to win back the hearts and minds of skeptics still smarting the final mediocre months of the Lane Kiffin era.

Public opinion was already down following a massively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012. It crested when Kiffin was fired following a blowout loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of last season. That begat the brief Ed Orgeron era, which included a 6-2 record -- though losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA were contributing factors to Orgeron not getting the job. After Sarkisian was announced as coach, Orgeron stepped down and Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Helton was retained as offensive coordinator, and, at least for now, there is stability in the football office.

With crippling sanctions in the past, Sarkisian & Co. made a huge national statement by landing the league’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included lauded prospects Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Sarkisian has opened up spring ball to the public and done everything possible to reunite the fan base.

"Ultimately, it’s going on the field and performing and doing what we’re here to do and that’s win football games," Sarkisian said. "Are we going to try to win them all? There’s no doubt we are. Are we going to win them all? I don’t know. I don’t know. The football is shaped a funny way for that very reason. It bounces in funny directions sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to be successful, and I think we’re doing that."

Helton, one of just two holdovers from the Kiffin era (along with receivers coach Tee Martin), understands the expectations from his time on campus. Even defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was Sarkisian’s defensive coordinator at Washington, is prepared for the fact that a 10-win season might not be good enough for USC’s standards. In his mind, those expectations shouldn’t be daunting. They should be embraced.

"If that’s what you’re worried about, then you don’t come here," Wilcox said. "That’s what you sign up for. We expect to win. We should be good. We should win championships. I don’t think about like that [as daunting]. If I did, or if any of us did, we shouldn’t come here. But every one of us jumped at the opportunity to come here. The expectations are extremely high, but that doesn’t change how we operate. That wouldn’t say much about you as a coach: 'Now you’re really going to work hard because you're at USC.' It shouldn’t matter if it’s Division III or high school or USC. You coach to be the best you can be."
Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”

Q&A: Washington coach Chris Petersen

January, 16, 2014
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Chris Petersen shocked many when he opted to leave Boise State and replace Steve Sarkisian at Washington. He's been the Huskies coach for more than a month now, so it's time to move past his move and consider his present and future on Montlake.

With national signing day just around the corner, it seemed like a good time to check in with him and see what his early impressions of the transition are. And what's ahead.

Update us on how you spent your time since you were introduced as the Washington coach. Have you settled in and been able to move the family from Boise to Seattle?

Chris Petersen: That hasn't even kind of happened. I'm here and my family is in Boise. Just every day is a scramble. The good thing is we got our staff in place, so now we're trying to re-integrate ourselves with the players, get to know those guys, get them up to speed. School has re-started, so we're a week into it. Then along the way the most important thing is re-establishing our ties with connections and recruits. Guys that we've recruited before, been recruiting for the past year, guys who already have ties to Washington. Trying to put that puzzle together.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesA whirlwind few weeks has Chris Petersen ready for his first signing day and spring at Washington.
How does that work? It's complicated, isn't it? You're trying to recruit to a new school after building long-term relationships with guys as the Boise State coach. How much do you look at what Washington already has committed vs. some of the guys who were talking to you about going to Boise State?

CP: You're right. It is complicated. Every situation is a little bit different. We've been talking to a lot of these kids for a long, long time -- some for over a year, so a lot of them are tied into us as coaches. You know how that goes in the recruiting process. Some kids are really tied in to the university itself, but most are tied in to the coaches. When you show them what Washington has to offer academically, the league we play in, for some of these kids, that's a real benefit. We'll see when it's all said and done. We're really trying to figure out what is best for everybody, the best fit. This is how we've been at Boise. It's all about getting each guy into the right place for them. That's when the magic happens. If this isn't the right place for some of these guys, then that's OK as well. But we'll get some good players here, without question, in this class. And then we'll start the process over immediately after signing day. We'll have a lot longer time to work at it.

You're also introducing yourself to a new set of players who are probably curious about what they are going to get from you and your staff. You're fortunate in that you have an impressive track record and that everyone knows who you are. But give me the general message you give the returning players, what they need to know about playing for you and what you're looking for.

CP: The first thing is that some things we do are going to be different. Not necessarily right or wrong -- it's just going to be different. It's going to be our way that's worked for us. The sooner they buy into it, the sooner it's going to work for all of us. It really comes down to kind of putting the ball in their court. It's an exciting, fun time. They've learned some really good things from the other coaches. They have those techniques and philosophies, and here we come with some new things. The faster they are all-in on the way we do things, the better it's going to be for everybody. They've been really excited, really receptive. We're just kind of getting started here. It starts in the weight room for us. I'm excited to watch them go to work.

Boise State played Washington to open the season, so you have a pretty good knowledge of the schemes they ran last year on both sides of the ball. How much different are your offensive and defensive schemes compared to what they did this year?

CP: That's going to be interesting offensively and defensively, because I think the plays, the schemes, the concepts -- so much of it is very, very similar. So it's a matter of blending the languages together. Certainly, we'll emphasize different things, but I think a lot of it is the same. So we're trying to be smart in terms of how we can help the players and not have to have them learn from scratch. Yet we've got to be able to call things the way we're used to calling things for a long, long time, because we've got to be able to teach it. So we're working on that right now. Defensively, it's the same thing. This whole system started at Boise when [defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox was with us. So there's going to be a lot of carryover with that terminology, with that structure of the defense as well. So in some ways, it's really pretty nice. It's going to be as much as the same as you can possibly have it on a brand new staff.

Is the message for spring practice that every position is open for competition and no one should feel settled? Or guys have fresh life who were buried on the depth chart?

CP: Absolutely -- that's the beauty of a new staff. But it's always like that. It was always like that at Boise. When we had [quarterback] Kellen Moore, it was like, “Kellen, I hope one of these guys pushes you very hard to beat you out. It's just going to make you better.” Our philosophy is it didn't matter who you were; it was always a competition. Certain guys have earned more reps than the others through the years, but hopefully we're recruiting young, hungry guys who want to play. That's better for the entire program. Everybody competes. Heck, we don't know anything about these guys, other than the basics of seeing them on tape, playing against them one game. That's not enough. So, yeah, I think it's a breath of fresh air for everybody. Guys who have started a lot and guys that haven't. Hey, show us what you got. We're all eyes and ears.

How deep did the discussion go with Justin Wilcox at defensive coordinator? Or were you pretty much set on bringing over most of your staff from Boise?

CP: It was a total win-win for both sides. Justin and I go way, way back. It was just a matter of what was going to work for the both of us. I think at the end of the day, it was a win-win for both of us that he was going to go down there [to USC] and we were going to bring our staff here. Justin and I will always be extremely close. It worked out great.

I don't know how many times through the years I typed your name as a potential candidate for a coaching opening. But you always stayed at Boise, at least until Washington came calling this time. It's still got to be a little bit of a shock for you to look around and see Seattle and the Huskies and not Boise State. Has it sunk in fully that you are in a new situation with a new team? Or has the whirlwind of demands and getting settled kept you from being reflective about this massive change?

CP: The time at Boise was awesome. So much of my life -- 13 years -- was there. It was the longest I've lived anywhere. I don't want to discount that. Those were the best years of my professional life, certainly without question. But I also felt really strongly that it was time for a change for the right place. This was the right place. I feel really good about that. I don't look back and say, "Oh, my gosh, I'm here now." Nothing like that. It felt like the right time for a new challenge. We're energized by it and excited to do what we can do.

After bowl win, big questions for USC

December, 23, 2013
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When you cup your hands around USC's 45-20 blowout victory over No. 20 Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl and assume singular focus on the event itself, it's impossible to not be impressed, to not think, "Now that is USC football."

Then when you put it in the context of the tumultuous season -- a maelstrom of coaching uncertainty and chaotic swings of momentum -- it seems like Trojans fans should officially declare the strangest season in program history at least a moderate success, perhaps as successful as it could have been. Well, other than losses to Notre Dame and UCLA.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThings seem to be looking up for Cody Kessler, left, Buck Allen and the Trojans.
Still, winning 10 games, including a bowl game, and ending up nationally ranked is pretty respectable when it's produced by an injury-ravaged, scholarship-reduced team that has called four different men its head coach between August and today.

Further, it shows the players have pride. A substantial handful -- both seniors and underclassmen -- are eyeballing the NFL draft, and it wouldn't have been shocking if they gave an indifferent performance against Fresno State, a team that arrived with plenty of motivation. Quarterback Cody Kessler told Kevin last week that the Trojans were focused and motivated, and it proved to me more than empty, tell-the-reporter-something-pretty talk.

Said Kessler, "Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”

So the players who are leaving, which might include leading juniors such as receiver Marqise Lee, defensive end George Uko, linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Dion Bailey and cornerback Josh Shaw, can feel good about how they finished things. If this performance was a tribute to former interim coach Ed Orgeron, then you can be sure Coach O was howling with delight somewhere while watching the game.

But what about those who are staying?

The big news coming out of the Las Vegas Bowl other than the final score was that new coach Steve Sarkisian will retain offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who served as the interim head coach for the bowl game. That's probably good news for Kessler, who blossomed once Helton took over the offense from fired coach Lane Kiffin.

Of course, Sarkisian, like Kiffin, calls his own offensive plays, so if another opportunity arises for Helton, particularly one that includes play-calling duties, he might opt to leave.

In fact, who's staying and who's going applies to both the players and coaches. We probably won't get official word on the makeup of Sarkisian's staff until after Washington, his former team, plays BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday night. The Huskies under new coach Chris Petersen also have kept their plans quiet.

The big questions: Will Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo follow Sarkisian south? If Wilcox shortly arrives at Heritage Hall, then where does current USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast end up? In one year, he transformed one of the nation's most underachieving defenses into one of its best. Hard to imagine he stays unemployed for long.

This whole blending together of USC's and Washington's -- and Washington's and Boise State's -- 2013 staffs has certainly inspired plenty of gossip among other assistant coaches.

Another question: Tosh Lupoi.

The Huskies ace recruiter and defensive line coach is being investigated by the NCAA following allegations that he paid for private tutoring for Husky football recruit Andrew Basham, with Basham's former high school track coach, Mike Davis, spilling the beans to the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times last week.

What that means in the short term is that Lupoi won't be hired by USC, and he might be out of a job until the NCAA rules on his case. What it means in the big picture for two Pac-12 football programs in transition is hard to say, as Washington, USC and Sarkisian have significant interests in the matter.

Due to new NCAA rules, Sarkisian could be exposed, which means USC could suffer for violations that occurred in Seattle.

And, yes, feel free to question the timing of these allegations being reported and speculate on where the sour grapes originated that spawned the investigation.

An offshoot of Lupoi's troubles is the Trojans’ need for a defensive line coach, which probably is why Sarkisian told ESPNLA 710 on Sunday that he's going to make another run at Orgeron to see if he's interested in returning to USC.

That could be interesting. Or it could just be idle talk.

Once all the administrative and personnel issues are settled, then we'll start to take a measure of the Sarkisian administration and how things might stack up in 2014. Trojans fans first want to see where their team ends up on Feb. 5, national signing day. Then it's on to spring practice, where Kessler likely will have to prove himself again, though Helton staying on should provide his candidacy a boost.

USC's bowl win was impressive. It surely made Trojans feel good, inside and outside the locker room. But the reality is it was as isolated as a pleasant fan experience can be. A win in the Las Vegas Bowl and finishing in the lower half of the nation's top-25 isn't what Trojans pine for. With this next recruiting class the last one limited by NCAA sanctions, most are ready to see the program regain its footing among the Pac-12 and nation's elite.

Sarkisian officially took the keys of the program on Saturday. By Sunday, the euphoria from the bowl win probably started to waft away inside Heritage Hall.

The real business begins now.

Petersen will be challenged in Pac-12

December, 6, 2013
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Major narratives in college football change quickly. Just as the midseason hyperventilating surrounding the BCS title game typically sounds nothing like the end-of-season hyperventilating about the BCS title game, so do narratives almost immediately evolve on coaching changes.

Washington formally announced the hiring of Chris Petersen away from Boise State on Friday, answering one of the major annual questions in college football: Will Chris Petersen ever leave Boise?

[+] EnlargePetersen
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsChris Petersen won 92 games in eight years at Boise State.
The hiring, rightfully, will be widely celebrated, particularly among those wearing Huskies purple.

With a list of big-name targets after Steve Sarkisian opted to bolt for USC on Monday, athletic director Scott Woodward moved quickly and decisively. He checked in with UCLA coach Jim Mora, who thought seriously about the job before re-upping with the Bruins. Rumors briefly flew over Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a Don James disciple. Then two names emerged: Petersen and Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who worked under Sarkisian from 2009 to 2011.

Both would be good hires, but Petersen is the big fish, the guy who spurned many previous overtures because he liked living and coaching in Boise. He has won five conference titles and two BCS bowls while winning 88 percent of his games (92-12) over eight years with the Broncos.

This hiring will create immediate buzz across the country. Huskies fans, many of whom were growing impatient with Sarkisian not challenging Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North Division, probably view themselves as being in a better place today than they were just after finishing the regular season 8-4. They would like to thank USC for poaching their former coach, as well as apparently passing on Petersen in favor of Sarkisian.

But that narrative will shortly shift as well. Words, spin and column inches celebrating Petersen's arrival will eventually give way to actual games. While Petersen is a great hire on paper, he is not a certainty. This is new territory for him. Coaching Boise State in the WAC and then the Mountain West is not the same thing as coaching the Huskies in the Pac-12.

For one, he will no longer be primarily recruiting proverbial diamonds in the rough who are overlooked by major powers and then taking time to develop them. He now must go after elite players who have offers from USC, Stanford, Oregon, Ohio State and Alabama. It's a different type of recruiting with different challenges and different potential pratfalls.

Of course, the biggest difference will be the schedule.

At Boise State, Petersen built a national power by gaining nationwide attention on a near-annual basis with an early-season victory over a marquee AQ conference foe -- Georgia, Oregon, Virginia Tech, etc. -- then running the table through a weak conference. It was a nice formula for non-AQ success, and the magical win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2006 season gave the Broncos national credibility that trickled down through the years.

While there were plenty of naysayers, Boise State earned a spot at the adult table. The general feeling was an undefeated Boise State deserved a shot at the big boys, even if it never was invited to the championship game.

Much deserved credit for that goes to Petersen, who reached many short lists of the nation's best coaches, alongside guys named Nick Saban, Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer.

Petersen, however, will need a new formula in the Pac-12. There are no Wyomings, New Mexicos or Colorado States in his new conference, which is as deep in quality players, coaches and teams as it has ever been.

He has never coached a team that faced a Pac-12 grind of nine conference games. He's never led a team through a back-to-back-to-back slate of Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State, as the Huskies did during a midseason three-game losing streak that turned fans sour.

We know Petersen, 49, is smart. We know he's an offensive innovator. He is the only two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award as national coach of the year. He seems to be good at evaluating talent, both with players and assistant coaches.

Nonetheless, we don't know for sure if he has the coaching chops to consistently win at this level. Or win big enough to make himself the long-term answer at Washington, though it's perfectly reasonable to believe he will be. Just recall how things went for the former Boise State head coaches who preceded Petersen in bolting for AQ jobs, Dirk Koetter to Arizona State and Dan Hawkins to Colorado. At the time, both were widely viewed as fantastic hires. Neither succeeded.

To be fair, the only sure things in college football right now are Saban and Meyer.

Speaking of assistant coaches, Petersen's first big recruiting job will be persuading defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to stick around. Wilcox could follow Sarkisian to USC, though his contracted $1 million buyout is pricey, even for the Trojans, or he might end up a head-coaching candidate, starting with the place Petersen just left.

Wilcox was Petersen's defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009. They could prove a powerful tandem in Montlake.

There also is a not unreasonable Pollyanna side to this. Maybe when Petersen gets an A-list program with A-list facilities and A-list revenue he becomes an even better coach? Maybe he becomes Washington's Nick Saban.

Or maybe he becomes the second coming of Don James.


While the specifics of UCLA coach Jim Mora’s new contract agreement through the 2019 season aren’t yet known, he could be getting more money for his assistant coaches and football facility upgrades.

And does anyone else find it just a tad coincidental that the news broke just as Steve Sarkisian was being introduced as USC’s new coach?

This is a huge step forward for the Bruins, who are recognizing the progress the program has made under Mora. It’s a declaration that they are ready to be more than just a basketball school.

As the Pac-12 blog mentioned this morning, there was a strong possibility that if the Bruins brass didn’t make a commitment to Mora and the football program, he could pursue the Washington job that was vacated by Sarkisian’s move to USC.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJim Mora signed a contract extension with UCLA through the 2019 season.
Mora made sense for the Huskies given his roots in Seattle, where he played and owns a home. And it’s not the first time his name has been floated for the job. The extent to which he has been pursued in the past 24 hours probably won’t ever come to light. But no doubt, phone calls were made and interests were gauged.

This was the smart play by Mora and the Bruins. They won the Pac-12 South championship in Mora’s first season and were in the thick of the South hunt up until the final two weeks of the 2013 regular season. Through two seasons, the Bruins are 18-8 with Mora at the helm and 9-1 against South Division teams.

More importantly, they are 2-0 against USC. And that gave Mora leverage to push for the things he needed to keep the program moving in the right direction. Wisely, UCLA’s decision-makers concurred.

From a conference perspective, Mora staying put means a hyper-competitive Pac-12 South for years to come. Todd Graham has the Sun Devils in the Pac-12 title game in his second year. Rich Rodriguez has the Wildcats bowling for two straight seasons and they’ll be getting a boost next year from multiple transfers. USC figures to be a player again with Sarkisian at the helm. And let’s not forget that Kyle Whittingham’s Utah team beat Stanford and seems to be on the edge of breaking through, while Colorado got to four wins in its first season under Mike MacIntyre.

While we’ll never know for sure if Washington was going to offer Mora the job (or if it did), the fact that he’s no longer in the running leaves a void. ESPN’s Joe Schad has reported that Boise State coach Chris Petersen could be in the mix. Petersen was also linked to the USC job. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been rumored to go with Sarkisian to USC, but that could change if he’s offered the position at Washington.

Other reported names include Alabama assistant Doug Nussmeier and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.

All Huskies fans can do is sit and wait. And watch next year’s USC-UCLA game feature their former coach on one side and a former player on the other.

Sarkisian critics get their wish

December, 2, 2013
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Lane Kiffin only became USC's coach in 2010 because Steve Sarkisian didn't want to leave Washington. "It wasn't the time," he told me.

On Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, however, the time was right, as USC hired Sarkisian to replace Kiffin, two good friends who coached the Trojans' offense together under Pete Carroll.

It's an interesting and perhaps surprising hire. It will receive a mixed reaction.

More than a few Washington fans, while grateful that Sarkisian led the Huskies back from a long-term tailspin that crashed and burned with an 0-12 season in 2008, were growing impatient. The program hadn't taken the proverbial next step, hadn't yet made a move against the Oregon-Stanford hegemony in the Pac-12's North Division. The Huskies went 7-6 three years in a row and only gained a Sarkisian-high eighth win on Saturday with a victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup regular-season finale.

So more than a few Washington fans will receive the news with: "Good riddance."

That such sentiments, arguably emotional and unreasonable, exist, and Sarkisian was fully aware of them, is probably part of the reason he deemed it time to leave Washington.

So Sarkisian's Huskies critics get their wish: a new coach.

The search could be concluded quickly if athletic director Scott Woodward opts to promote defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who almost certainly will follow Sarkisian to USC if Washington doesn't hire him. Wilcox is a true up-and-comer, a young but proven coach who built quality defenses at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington.

Of course, there is a big-fish candidate the Huskies might make a run at: UCLA coach Jim Mora. He played for Don James at Washington and has long been a favorite among more than a few boosters who wanted to hire him previously, when Mora was in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian turned around Washington but had trouble reaching the next step.
Mora said a few weeks ago that he has never interviewed for the Huskies job or been approached by a representative of the school. UCLA and Mora have been a good match, and the Bruins almost certainly would do everything they could to retain him.

For one, Mora has beaten USC twice in a row, including a 35-14 blowout Saturday. Second, it would send a bad message about the pecking order in Los Angeles, no matter the recent results, if USC hired away the Washington coach, and then Washington hired away the UCLA coach. Do the transitive property on that one.

Another big-fish name that will pop up: Boise State's Chris Petersen. While his name has been attached to every major coaching vacancy since Petersen started working magic for the Broncos -- including USC, UCLA and Washington before it hired Sarkisian -- there might be some legitimacy in his candidacy for the Huskies.

Boise State slipped decidedly in the national pecking order this fall, going 8-4, which included a loss to Washington. With the advent of the four-team playoff in 2014, Boise State might find itself outside looking in among the national powers even more than it did under the BCS system. If Petersen was ever going to leave Boise State, this might be the time. While he didn't seem like a good fit for the hurly-burly of Los Angeles, laid-back Seattle might be more to his liking.

Another current coach whose name is sure to come up is Tim DeRuyter, who has done a fantastic job rebuilding Fresno State. The Bulldogs went 9-4 his first season and are 10-1 this year, and was seen as a likely BCS buster from a non-AQ conference before they lost to San Jose State on Friday.

Another intriguing possibility is Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The former Idaho quarterback was Sarkisian's offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011 before being lured away by Nick Saban in 2012. He was highly thought of even before he spent two years under Saban -- a pair of seasons where he's been privy to Saban's celebrated "The Process."

There is no lack of strong possibilities for the Huskies.

Many Washington fans will be disappointed about Sarkisian leaving. A vocal minority will celebrate it.

The bad news for sportswriters? USC and Washington don't play again until 2015, so the emotions won't be as raw when the programs clash for the first time, with Sarkisian adorned in cardinal and gold instead of purple.
No. 5 Stanford hosts No. 15 Washington on Saturday. History scholars are not welcome.

Two years ago, Stanford ran all over Washington -- setting a school record with 446 rushing yards in a 65-21 win. That game was, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of Washington’s 2011 defensive downfall that crested with an Alamo Bowl embarrassment against Baylor.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Stepfan Taylor
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesStanford and Washington don't expect much carryover from last season's game, a defensive struggle won by the Huskies, when the teams meet Saturday.
Last year, in a rapid change of fortunes, it was Washington’s defense that rose to the occasion and held Stanford’s offense to 170 total yards, zero offensive touchdowns and just 65 rushing yards in a 17-13 win. The Cardinal were coming off of a then-shocking 21-14 win over No. 2 USC. That game might have been, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the end of the Lane Kiffin era. But that's another story for another day.

So what does the recent history between these two teams mean? Squat. Diddly-squat, to be exact. This is a very different Washington defense than the one that rolled over two year ago. Just as Stanford’s offense is completely different than the one that struggled to move the ball last year in Seattle.

“We’re definitely a new football team,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “From two years ago we’ve made some pretty significant changes on the defensive side of the football from the staff standpoint. And I think offensively we’ve made some significant changes in scheme and style of play that has changed us dramatically over a two-year period.”

Indeed, Washington’s defense under Justin Wilcox has improved dramatically over the last season and a half. Through four games this season the Huskies are allowing fewer than 11 points per game. Offensively, the new up-tempo scheme is producing almost 600 yards per game, and the Huskies average nearly 40 points per contest.

Though the feeling of last season's loss still lingers for some Stanford players, it won’t be a factor in Saturday’s matchup.

“Disappointment,” said Stanford defensive back Alex Carter in talking about last season's meeting. “I know we felt like we had really given up an opportunity for our team to make a statement. For us, I think we just realize that last year was last year. It happened. This year we’re a different team with a different mentality. We’re just focused on this game.”

As for finding little tricks and intricacies from last season's game? Stanford coach David Shaw said don’t count on it.

“I never take the previous year’s game too seriously,” he said. “We look at them from a schematic and personnel standpoint. They have a lot of film from this year. We go back and watch a lot of schematic things, but what actually happens in games, there’s never a carry over. Last year when we played them, we didn’t think we were going to go in there and rush for 300 yards cause we knew they were a more sound, physical, athletic defense. We knew it was going to be tough sledding, just like it was, and just like we believe this year is going to be tough sledding also.”

So far, things have gone according to plan for both teams. The Huskies (4-0 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) have successfully negotiated a nonconference slate that included a win over Boise State and road win against Illinois. And despite the weather last week, they handled Arizona 31-13.

Stanford (4-0, 2-0) has looked explosive offensively, averaging more than 41 points per game. Quarterback Kevin Hogan ranks fifth nationally in QBR and the offense -- while still run-based -- has become more wide receiver-centric in the passing attack.

“They’ve changed some,” Sarkisian said. "Two years ago Andrew Luck was the quarterback and they were doing their thing with Andrew. They've worked themselves into Kevin Hogan and they have a lot of variety. Defensively it’s a lot of the same faces, just more mature. They pose a great deal of challenges for us.”

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 2, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 1 in the Pac-12:

Team of the week: Washington opened fancy, renovated Husky Stadium with a dominant 38-6 win over No. 19 Boise State. Quarterback Keith Price was outstanding, and the defense kept the Broncos from scoring a touchdown. It was Boise State's worst loss since 2005.

Best game: While Oregon State's 49-46 loss to FCS school Eastern Washington was the biggest nail-biter, the Pac-12 blog isn't in the habit of celebrating a conference loss to an FCS team. So we're going with Utah's 30-26 comeback win over Utah State. The Utes trailed 23-14 early in the second half but stormed back after following up a 45-yard field goal with a successful onside kick. It was a gutsy call that led to the Utes' go-ahead points.

Biggest play: Colorado had taken a 26-24 lead over Colorado State early in the fourth quarter, but the Rams had driven to midfield and looked poised to counter on their next possession. On second-and-8, a Garrett Grayson pass to Kapri Bibbs looked like it was going to earn a first down, but Buffs defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe came from behind Bibbs and slapped the ball out. Greg Henderson got a nice bounce and scooped and scooted lickety-split down the sideline for a 53-yard touchdown that changed the game.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenKeith Price was stellar in Washington's win over No. 19 Boise State.
Offensive standout: Price completed 23 of 31 passes for 324 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and rushed for 25 yards in the win over Boise State. Moreover, he did all that after throwing a pick on his first pass, showing mental toughness by not letting an early mistake in a high-pressure environment get him down. His efficiency rating for the game -- 176.8 -- would have led the nation in 2012. Price also now has 56 career TD passes, a school record.

Defensive standout: Colorado's Addison Gillam was just the second true freshman to start a season opener at inside linebacker in school history, but that's not why he's noted here. He's here because he recorded 14 tackles, with two coming for a loss, and a sack. He also had a pass breakup and a key tackle on fourth down. The Buffaloes' defense, which was just awful last year, held Colorado State to 295 total yards.

Defensive standout II: Yes, Washington's Justin Wilcox knows what he's doing as he continues to climb the short list of nation's best defensive coordinators. The Huskies were bend-but-don't-break early against Boise State, and then they took over. Six points was the Broncos' lowest point total since 1997 (a 58-0 loss to Washington State). While Boise State gained some yards -- both teams were running up-tempo schemes, so there were 173 total plays in the game -- the Broncos averaged only 3.9 yards per play. For the sake of comparison, Alabama gave up 4.2 yards per play last year. Boise State's longest running play was 18 yards, and its longest passing play was 16 yards. When you don't give up big plays, you have a chance to win.

Special-teams standout: Utah kicker Andy Phillips, a former U.S. alpine skier who had never played competitive football -- at any level -- before his kickoff against Utah State, kicked field goals of 45, 19 and 38 yards and was perfect on three extra points in the Utes' 30-26 victory. The final two kicks came after the Utes had fallen behind 26-24 in the fourth quarter. Oh, and he perfectly executed an onside kick that might have been the biggest play of the game. His three kickoffs all went for touchbacks. See this video.

Smiley face: The most important thing is to be 1-0 after the opening week, and seven of 10 Pac-12 teams that played can now say that. Two of the teams that lost, California to No. 22 Northwestern and Washington State at Auburn, showed fairly well as underdogs and probably felt they should have won. Washington, Colorado, UCLA, Arizona and Oregon probably feel like they got exactly what they wanted out of the week. USC and Utah are, again, happy to be 1-0.

Frowny face: Oh, man, Oregon State. That defense.

Oregon State was the week's big loser. More like BIG LOSER. A four-touchdown favorite against Eastern Washington -- an FCS power but an FCS team nonetheless -- the No. 25 Beavers went down 49-46 because they simply couldn't stop Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams, who passed for 411 yards and rushed for 107. The Beavers welcomed back seven starters from one of the nation's best defenses, but that unit turned in a miserable performance. What the heck happened to All-Pac-12 defensive end Scott Crichton, who had just two tackles?

It was only the third time that an FCS school defeated a ranked FBS team.

Thought of the week: You can never -- ever! -- take any team lightly. In a week when every Pac-12 team will be favored in nonconference play, that's something to remember.

Questions for the week: USC and Washington State open Pac-12 play this week in the L.A. Coliseum on Saturday, and this game could be revealing. The Cougars showed they are an improved team at Auburn, while the Trojans are hard to pin down. Will Washington State get the upset? If that happens, the Mike Leach era gains momentum while the Lane Kiffin era takes a notable downturn. A secondary question is whether one or the other USC quarterbacks takes control of the starting job.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
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Oregon State QB Sean Mannion threw for 422 yards, and receiver Brandin Cooks had 13 catches for 196 yards in the Beavers' upset loss to Eastern Washington, but you don't get a helmet sticker when your team loses to an FCS foe.

So who does?

Andy Phillips, K, Utah: This might be the best story of the week, as Phillips, a former U.S. alpine skier who had never played competitive football before his kickoff against Utah State, kicked field goals of 45, 19 and 38 yards and was perfect on three extra points in the Utes' 30-26 victory. Oh, and he perfectly executed an onside kick that might have been the biggest play of the game. See this video.

Dion Bailey, S, USC: Bailey's switch back to his native position of safety from linebacker paid off against Hawaii. He led the Trojans' defense with seven tackles, a sack and an interception in their 30-13 victory.

Keith Price, QB, Washington: A poor 2012 season is officially old news for Price. In the Huskies' 38-6 win over No. 19 Boise State, he completed 23 of 31 passes for 324 yards with a pair of touchdowns, which gave him 56 for his career, a new school record, eclipsing Cody Pickett. He also rushed for 25 yards. His efficiency rating of 176.8 would have led the nation in 2012.

Washington's defense: The Huskies held Boise State to their lowest point total since 1997 (a 58-0 loss to Washington State). The Broncos gained only 3.9 yards per play. Their longest running play from scrimmage was 18 yards. The Huskies are paying second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox a lot of money. He is worth it.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: Hundley completed 22 of 33 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Bruins' 58-20 win over Nevada. He also rushed for 63 yards on seven carries with two TDs. The Bruins' offense, guided by Hundley, gained 647 yards.

Chris Harper, WR, California: Harper caught 11 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns in the Bears' 44-30 loss to Northwestern.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Marriota rushed for 113 yards and two TDs on just five carries -- 22.6 per rush -- and passed for 234 yards and a score in the Ducks' 66-3 blowout win over Nicholls State.

Tra'Mayne Bondurant, S, Arizona: Bondurant had two interceptions in the Wildcats' 35-0 won over Northern Arizona, including one he returned 23 yards for a touchdown. He also tied for the team lead with seven tackles, adding one for a loss.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian likes his team's maturity. He likes its depth. He's appreciative it emerged from preseason camp mostly healthy. He's pleased with the focus and willingness to work. And he really likes the spectacular remodel of Husky Stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireSteve Sarkisian and Washington hope to improve on a string of 7-6 seasons.
Sarkisian sees plenty of positives as he enters his fifth season at Washington, including 20 returning starters, a number that doesn't include a handful of former starters who missed the 2012 season due to injuries who are back on the 2013 depth chart.

Don't think Sarkisian isn't aware, however, of the "but" coming, the qualifier, the pause that allows skepticism to walk into the room to confront this optimism. The last three times his team was 0-0 in August, it finished 7-6 in December. This is a program with a dedicated fan base that can recall a time when three consecutive seasons capped by no final game in January was seen as a worrisome downturn.

Of course, part of the problem is that portion of the Huskies dedicated fan base needs to be at least in its mid-to-late 30s to recall the golden age under Don James.

So the excitement of No. 19 Boise State coming to Seattle to open Husky Stadium on Saturday is accompanied by a sense of full-on urgency for Sarkisian and his team. It's time to be relevant again, both in the Pac-12 and nationally. It's time to eyeball Rose Bowls, not just bowl eligibility.

Simply: If not now, then when?

"What's really going to make this place special is how we play, the product we put on the field. Our guys understand that," Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian says his players are eager to prove this is the team; this is the year.

No Husky is more eager to move on to a new season than quarterback Keith Price. He lets out a big laugh when a reporter jokes that both of them are surely pleased that Boise State's arrival means no more talk about 2012. It's now time.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Steven Bisig/US PresswireKeith Price will need to make plays for Washington to compete against Boise State on Saturday.
"We understand that seven-win seasons are no longer acceptable," he said. "We're up for the challenge."

The Huskies know the Broncos will offer a challenge for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their having lost to them in last year's Las Vegas Bowl on a last-second field goal. In that game, the Huskies fell behind 18-3, rallied to take a fourth quarter lead but then yielded a 47-yard kickoff return and short drive for the winning kick.

It was emblematic of the season -- slow start, a positive swing in momentum but then an ultimate flop. The Huskies were floundering at 3-4 at the 2012 midpoint but then won four consecutive games as the schedule softened. With the Apple Cup against struggling Washington State and a bowl game ahead, they seemed poised for a potential six-game winning streak to close a nine-win season.

Instead, they epically collapsed in the Apple Cup -- surrendering an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to lose in overtime -- and then fell to Boise State.

You might have heard all this before, but -- apologies -- it's the prevailing narrative until the Huskies change that. Which is where Boise State comes in.

Sarkisian is as aware as anyone that putting too much on this game -- one way or the other -- could damage the season. Beating Boise State likely would push the Huskies into the national rankings, but they will only stay there by continuing to win when Pac-12 play begins. Conversely, allowing a loss to linger could prove catastrophic to the season. The latter could congeal random hotseat chatter into something legitimate for Sarkisian, even though he took over a program after it went 0-12 in 2008.

Another plot twist: The uncertain status of preseason All-American tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He's not been cleared to play due to an injury to his pinkie, Sarkisian said, but the real issue is whether he will face any type of suspension after a spring DUI. Sark isn't saying, giving a reporter seeking clarity a, "Come on dude," during a Monday news conference. If Seferian-Jenkins is out, Price loses a big target, particularly in the red zone.

Price is probably where this game turns. It's likely that Boise State, after giving up 205 yards rushing to Bishop Sankey in the bowl game, is going to gang up on the run and try to force Price to make plays. He'll have a much healthier and seasoned offensive line in front of him, and he's seemed to be back to his old playmaking ways after strong performances in spring practices and fall camp.

Meanwhile, the Huskies defense took big strides last year and seems poised to do so again in year two under coordinator Justin Wilcox. Not only are eight starters back, but Hau'oli Kikaha -- who was brilliant as a true freshman in 2010 when his last name was Jamora -- has won the starting nod at one defensive end, displacing Andrew Hudson, who had 6.5 sacks last year.

"Man, I think he’s better than ever, quite honestly," Sarkisian said. "He is flying around all over the field. You really notice him in practice. He’s creating turnovers, he’s moving all over the field at different positions for us."

Of course, the Broncos have starting QB Joe Southwick back. He was highly efficient over the latter part of the season, including the bowl win over the Huskies.

Price calls it "a good question" when asked if the Huskies should be concerned about being too fired up. They're eager to put last season's disappointment behind them. They're focused on becoming relevant again. And they will be goosed about their fancy new digs.

And those digs are really fancy.

"Aw man, it's awesome," Price said. "Going from our old facilities to our new facilities, it's night and day. But we understand those facilities don't mean anything if we don't win games in our home. That's what's going to make that place even more special."








Take 2: B1G vs. Pac-12

July, 12, 2013
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Your B1G and Pac-12 bloggers have been grinding away on their respective leagues' nonconference primer series. Here's the Big Ten series, and here's the Pac-12 series. Part of the fun is learning about other teams in other conferences and what they bring to the table. The Pac-12 and Big Ten face each other five times during the regular season. The Pac-12 got the better of the matchups last year. Will this year be different? Brian Bennett and Kevin Gemmell decided to talk it over.

Brian Bennett: The first thing I look at for Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups in any given season is where the games are staged. Big Ten teams don’t seem to think the West Coast is the Best Coast; they are just 5-20 in true road games against the Pac-12 since 2000, and that includes an 0-3 mark on the road versus the Pac-12 last year. (The league also has just one win in its past 10 Rose Bowls, but not all of those games came against the Pac-12.)

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaNew coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers will have their hands full at ASU this season.
So it’s not good news for the league that I cover that three of these five matchups are located far left of the Midwest. If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s that the Big Ten teams should be substantial favorites in two of the road games -- Northwestern at Cal in the opener and Ohio State against those same Bears in Week 3. Cal is intriguing because of new coach Sonny Dykes, but Northwestern and Ohio State are both legitimate Top 20 teams with conference-title aspirations; if they can shake off the jet lag and contain the Bears’ passing attack, they should take care of business.

The two most interesting games -- and what look like virtual toss-ups -- are Wisconsin at Arizona State, and UCLA at Nebraska. The Badgers have a lot of returning talent, but a new head coach and different schemes on both sides of the ball. It’s also going to be a clash of styles, with the Badgers’ power running game going up against Arizona State’s spread offense. Will Gary Andersen’s team have its new systems figured out by then, and is Wisconsin’s defense -- particularly its inexperienced secondary -- fast enough to handle the Sun Devils?

UCLA-Nebraska is probably not getting enough attention as a must-watch game this year. Last year’s shootout in Pasadena, Calif., featured nonstop pingpong action, and both teams figure to have topflight offenses again. The Cornhuskers have a perilously young defense, but Bo Pelini’s teams usually defend much better at home than on the road. Quarterback Taylor Martinez -- who grew up a Bruins fan but was recruited by them as a defensive back -- will be highly motivated to beat UCLA his senior year. This is Nebraska’s only major test in the first seven games, and it’s one I think the Huskers have to find a way to win.

Finally, there’s Washington at Illinois. The Illini get the benefit of home turf, sort of, as the game will be played at Soldier Field in Chicago. We’ll see if Tim Beckman’s crew will inspire enough fans to show up by Week 3. While Washington has been mediocre for what seems like forever, I can’t confidently pick Illinois to beat any half-decent power conference opponent at this point.

In the end, I say the Big Ten manages a winning record this time around against the Pac-12, taking the two games in Berkeley, Calif., and the one in Lincoln, Neb. A 3-2 mark sounds about right, though if Wisconsin can pull off the win in the desert, that could be a good sign for both the Badgers and the league as a whole.

Kevin Gemmell: I'm going 3-2 also, but in favor of the Pac-12. After all, if we were in total agreement, it would make for a pretty boring Take 2. So I'll play the contrarian when it comes to UCLA-Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
William Mancebo/Getty ImagesCoach Jim Mora and UCLA allowed just six points in the second half of last year's win against Nebraska.
We agree on the Cal games versus Northwestern and Ohio State -- though I think Cal is going to give both of those teams a better run than they are banking on. I like what Andy Buh is doing with a defense that could be sneaky good. And the Bears have some explosive depth at wide receiver. But ultimately it's a rookie quarterback -- whomever Dykes chooses among Zach Kline, Jared Goff and Austin Hinder -- and a team that will still have some growing pains as new systems are installed on both sides of the ball. Like you with Illinois, I'm not ready to give the Bears the green light yet. However, last year's game in Columbus, a 35-28 win for Ohio State, should serve as a reminder not to take Cal lightly. No doubt, the Buckeyes will remember Brendan Bigelow and his four carries, 160 yards and two touchdowns.

Both halves of the Pac-12 blog have been saying we believe Washington is going to get over that seven-win hump this year after three straight seasons of mediocrity. The Huskies have a lot of pieces in place with a returning quarterback, a 1,400-yard rusher, good receivers, a good line and the top tight end in the country. Their defense made huge strides last season in the first year under Justin Wilcox, and we're expecting another leap forward in 2013. What scares me is Washington's inconsistent play on the road the past few seasons. During the Huskies' trio of 7-6 seasons, they are 14-5 in Seattle (last year they played at CenturyLink Field) and 6-11 on the road. The past two years they are 11-2 at home and 3-8 on the road (0-2 in their bowl games at neutral sites). If the Huskies want to have a breakout year, they are going to have to win away from home. Steve Sarkisian actually talked about this in a Q&A we did back in April. But they certainly have the talent to win this game.

The ASU-Wisconsin game is really a critical one for the Sun Devils. It kicks off a four-game stretch (with no bye weeks) that also includes Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. ASU is another team looking for some national credibility, and this is its first opportunity to get some. You're right to talk about the ASU offense, but that defense -- which ranked first nationally in tackles for a loss and second in sacks last season -- is going to be crazy good with Will Sutton and Carl Bradford leading the attack. I'm banking on a good game, but ultimately one ASU wins at home.

That brings us to UCLA-Nebraska, a game I'm also surprised more people aren't geeked up about outside of the respective fan bases. This should be a fantastic showcase for both leagues. Brett Hundley impressed in his freshman campaign, and I think this game is going to be a spotlight for two of the country's most athletic quarterbacks. I was in Pasadena for the game last season, and what actually stood out to me was UCLA's defense -- particularly in the second half. The Bruins allowed only six points, and kept Martinez to 11 yards rushing and the Huskers to 106 total yards in the final 30 minutes. They should be improved in Year 2 under Jim Mora and Lou Spanos. If the Bruins pull this one off, it's going to be because of what they can do defensively.
Unlike last year, there aren't nearly as many questions surrounding the Washington defense as the Huskies head into the final stretch before fall camp.

Last year a new scheme and new coaches were being installed, headlined by new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Huskies' defense was abysmal in 2011 -- so head coach Steve Sarkisian blew it up and started from scratch.

Now the Huskies are looking to build off of the momentum they gained in 2012 when they made huge strides in one year under Wilcox & Co.

"The numbers don't lie," Sarkisian said.

They certainly don't.

The biggest advances were in the secondary, where the Huskies jumped from 87th to 27th in pass efficiency defense, 106th to 31st in total defense, 108th to 39th in scoring defense and 116th to 23rd in pass defense. They had 17 interceptions last year compared to 10 the year before.

"Our secondary really had a very good season for us last year," Sarkisian said. "I thought Justin Wilcox, Keith Heyward, our secondary coach, really came in and did a great job. ... You look at the increase in play we had in the secondary -- our pass defense numbers, our ability to create turnovers -- I think really speaks volumes to their coaching and their ability to develop our players."


That's what Sarkisian is banking on in 2013 -- player development. More specifically, at the cornerback spot where they have to replace first-round draft pick Desmond Trufant. Sarkisian called the competition "healthy" this spring, but isn't anywhere closer to declaring anyone as the leader in the clubhouse for that starting spot. And it might end up being by-committee or which player has the hot hand that week. A few defensive backs have switched positions or spent time at safety and corner in an effort to make the defensive backfield deeper and more versatile.

With Marcus Peters, who started the final eight games opposite Trufant last season, back on one side, the competition heated up over spring between Travell Dixon and Greg Ducre. Sarkisian said that redshirt freshman Cleveland Wallace has also made a big push. Dixon is a JC transfer (once committed to Alabama) and Ducre had 15 tackles while appearing in 13 games last season.

"Desmond Trufant was a great player for us," Sarkisian said. "Anytime you have a first-round draft pick at corner it tells you the quality of player you have. But I think we've got some really capable guys that are stepping in."

If the Huskies can shore up that spot, expect the secondary to make even bigger strides in 2013. Sean Parker, who started all 13 games at safety, returns as the unquestioned leader of the secondary. Will Shamburger, who started two games last year, will see a larger role. But there's some good competition there as well. Tre Watson (who can pitch in either at corner or safety) is in the mix, and early enrollee Trevor Walker had a strong first spring. Brandon Beaver, who converted from corner to safety late last season but was limited in the spring, is also going to press for playing time.

Lots of names. But that also means lots of depth.

"We've got a good amount of talent back there," Sarkisian said. "It's about finding the right combination of those guys. For some of those guys who were redshirt players for us last year, Travell, Brandon, Cleveland, fall camp is going to be big for them. This spring was good to get the terminology and fundamentals and techniques after spending all year on the service team last year. There is a healthy competition going on back there and the end result is we're fortunate to have good depth and good coaches and we feel good about our pass defense when the fall rolls around."
When you ask Washington's second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to describe his base scheme, his answer comes down to "somewhere in between a 4-3 and a 3-4," which means it's got a little bit of everything.

"This day and age, I think all defenses are multiple," he explained.

Wilcox turned in one of nation's best coaching jobs last fall. He took a defense that was among college football's worst in 2011 and made it more than respectable.

Improvement? The Huskies surrendered nearly 100 fewer yards and 12 fewer points per game than they did the previous season under Nick Holt. A unit that had been ranked 106th in the nation in total defense, ranked 31st. A unit that had been ranked 108th in the nation in scoring defense, ranked 39th.

And you could make a case that the Huskies talent was not appreciably better in 2012 than in 2011.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe Washington defense saw marked improvement under Justin Wilcox last season.
That said, it was far from perfect. The Huskies got pushed around by more physical teams (LSU, 41-3) and were worn out and outrun by up-tempo, spread teams (Oregon, 52-21, and Arizona, 52-17). And they turned in an execrable fourth quarter against Washington State, surrendering 18 points in a shocking overtime defeat.

In the other nine games, they yielded an average of 15.3 points per game.

So when you ask Wilcox what didn't please him, he goes general: "Consistency," he said.

Just like his defensive scheme, that encompasses a lot. For one, the Huskies still need to get bigger and faster and deeper. They have solid talent on defense but they won't yet be mistaken for Alabama or Stanford. To be consistent on defense, starters need to win one-on-one battles and there can't be a significant drop-off when the first-team guy is getting a necessary breather.

The Huskies also seemed to get overwhelmed at times, mentally as well as physically, particularly on the road. Washington played timidly in the first half at LSU, and both Oregon and Arizona had 21-point quarters at home to put those games away in the first half.

With eight starters back and improving depth, as well as a year of seasoning under Wilcox's coaching and schemes, Washington should take another step forward in 2013. It has two big questions: 1. Improving the pass rush, one of the few numbers that was statistically worse in 2012 compared to the previous fall; 2. Replacing cornerback Desmond Trufant, the most significant of two voids in the secondary and the defense as a whole.

The latter won't likely get done. While Trufant's play fell off a bit over the final third of the season due to his playing hurt -- "Dinged," Wilcox called it -- he's still a likely first-round NFL draft pick next week.

"I don't know if we have a guy on our roster who can replace what Desmond Trufant did," Wilcox said. "You try to get guys -- it might be one guy, it might be three guys -- to try and gain the productivity at the position he gave us."

Wilcox did say that cornerback Marcus Peters, who struggled at times opposite Trufant as a redshirt freshman starter, "has flashed." Senior Sean Parker is established at one safety spot, but the competitions at the other two secondary voids remain wide open as the Huskies prepare for their spring game on Saturday, Wilcox said.

As for the pass rush, that starts with junior rush end Josh Shirley, who Wilcox believes played better than was commonly thought among the Huskies fan base.

"He did a good job rushing the passer last year," Wilcox said. "He had six and a half sacks last year but he had the opportunity to have 12 or 13 if he would have finished better."

Shirley also forced six fumbles, tied for first in the conference.

It would be a huge boost if defensive end Hau'oli Jamora is able to come back in the fall after knee injuries killed his past two seasons, but that's not something Wilcox can count on. Jamora looked like a budding star as a true freshman starter in 2010.

"I love the guy. He works and is studying," Wilcox said. "He's doing everything humanly possible to get back ... that would be huge."

The idea, of course, is to "effect the quarterback with a four-man rush." Over-reliance on blitzing and rushing five or six guys is where a defense gets into trouble -- see the 2011 Huskies. It's also not just about sacks. It's about making a quarterback move and adjust and feel uncomfortable.

The challenge of every Pac-12 coordinator is the variety of Pac-12 offenses. There are a wide variety of up-tempo spreads that don't particularly resemble each other -- the Huskies are even going mostly no-huddle this spring -- and then there are pro style offenses such as Oregon State, Stanford and USC. A defensive coordinator in the conference can't scheme -- or recruit -- only one way.

So even with a year under his belt at Washington, expect to see some tweaks from Wilcox next fall.

What's his scheme?

Said Wilcox, "It's identifying what we think we can be good at and catering the scheme as best we can to fit the players were have."

Washington's dramatic improvement and blossoming promise since going winless in 2008 yielded to a frustrated "what if?" and "not yet" in 2012 under fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian.

Yet when you roll together the mixed bag of red-letter wins and bad losses and the lessons both entail, and then toss in impressive returning talent, there's reason to believe the program might turn the reopening of renovated Husky Stadium into a welcome-back party for a program that's been off the college football map for more than a decade.

Washington features 20 returning starters with A-list talent on both sides of the ball. After three consecutive seven-win seasons, which have grown progressively less satisfying for fans, the Huskies seem poised to take the proverbial next step.

"I'd say so, without a doubt," said Sarkisian when asked if this was his most talented team. But then he added, "If we'd finished the last two games, we'd have finished last season as a 9-4 team. But we didn't get it done."

Not getting it done -- at least not yet -- is why some seem intent on putting Sarkisian on the hot seat.

Washington, despite playing one of the nation's toughest schedules in 2012 -- six top-20 and four top-10 teams -- seemed on the cusp of a nine-win season in November. All the Huskies had to do was hold on to an 18-point fourth-quarter lead against Washington State and then win a bowl game.

Neither happened, and the Huskies' worst fourth quarter in Apple Cup history left an ugly smudge on Sarkisian's generally strong résumé.

Further, the 2012 season played out in surprising ways, positively and negatively.

The Huskies' biggest questions before the season were defense and running back. But the defense was vastly improved under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox, and Bishop Sankey rushed for 1,439 yards. Meanwhile, the biggest certainty was QB Keith Price, who'd ranked seventh in the nation in passing efficiency in 2011, with 33 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 67 percent completion rate.

Price was touted as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. But he started slowly and never found his rhythm. He finished eighth in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency with 19 TDs and 13 picks.

That had many folks wondering if he'd keep his job in 2013. Before spring practices began, Sarkisian essentially said it was Price's job to lose, but he certainly could lose it if he got outplayed.

After six practices -- Washington returns to the field on April 2 after spring break -- Sarkisian said Price looks more like his 2011 self, particularly after the Huskies concluded their first session with a scrimmage.

"That was probably the best practice he's had in over a year," Sarkisian said. "He played really well."

A lot of Price playing well has to do with his health. His legs seemed shot much of last season. Not only was he not running well, he wasn't moving in the pocket and his throws lacked velocity and accuracy, two qualities that are often connected. The offseason priority has been getting Price's leg strength back.

"Not that Keith is ever going to be a runner, but he's at his best when he can avoid the initial pass rush and is able to buy time and keep his eyes downfield and create plays," Sarkisian said. "We've definitely seen that this spring."

It's not all on Price, though. The Huskies were beaten up on the offensive line last fall, and the lack of depth showed -- see 38 sacks surrendered. Further, there were times when the Huskies didn't seem mentally tough. They seemed intimidated at LSU, which fell into a pattern of woeful performances on the road -- see Oregon, Arizona and Washington State.

The difference between teams that win six or seven games and those that win nine or 10 or more is often consistency of performance.

"There are a couple of key things for taking a next step, for this to be our best team," Sarkisian said. "Yeah, I know it's our most talented team. But are we really going to be a team that goes on the road and it doesn't matter what time, or what the weather is, or who the opponent is, or what their record is? That stuff can't matter to us anymore. We've got to play our game."

When asked if he feels like he's on the hot seat, Sarkisian said, "Not at all."

On paper, hot-seat talk should give way to high hopes. The grounds for optimism are solid. The Huskies have the talent and experience to end up in the top 25.

But Washington needs to eclipse being a team of "not yet" and "what if?"

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