Huskies enter critical stretch

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
12:00
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For the record, just so we're all clear, Steve Sarkisian isn't satisfied.

But the Washington coach, who is now in the fourth year of his Pacific Northwest reclamation project, is confident he has the Huskies moving in the right direction.

"Inevitably, I know when I look at our roster, we've got a good football team on paper," Sarkisian said. "The challenge, when you've got a young football team like we have, is to play like that good football team all the time. That's something that we're going to have to work through. Not only throughout this season, but as we continue to move forward. When I look at our roster, I think we've got a good football team. And I think it's just a matter of time for us to really turn the corner."

Since taking over the once ill-fated squad, which went 0-12 in Tyrone Willingham's final season, Sarkisian has been turning corners much more frequently. It started with a five-win season in 2009, which included a competitive loss to LSU and a shocking 16-13 win over No. 3 USC. It was followed up by back-to-back bowl appearances and a victory in the 2010 Holiday Bowl.

"I knew what I wanted us to look like from the first day we took the field and what I wanted us to look like as we moved forward," he said. "For the most part, we've done that. There have been times when we haven't been that way. But for the most part, we have.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Steve Sarkisian
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIRESteve Sarkisian's focus is on Saturday's game with Boise State, not the one next August.
"I made the statement at my opening press conference, I didn't think it would take us very long. Year 2, we're Holiday Bowl champs and Year 3 we're at the Alamo Bowl going toe-to-toe with the No. 10 team in the country. So I don't think that it has taken very long. Now we need to continually take the next steps in the right direction so that we can continue to grow."

Tonight's matchup against No. 8 Stanford should be a good measuring stick. So will next week against Oregon, the week after that against USC, the week after that against Arizona, the week after that against Oregon State, etc., etc.

The Huskies knew they had one of the toughest undertakings in college football in the first half of the season. And with the rise of the Wildcats and Beavers, the challenge becomes that much stiffer. It's the kind of schedule that, with a few wins, could catapult the Huskies into the rankings and make them once again relevant in the national picture -- something they haven't been in about a decade.

It's also the kind of schedule that could stagnate the momentum Sarkisian has generated in the first three years of his tenure. Most seemed pleased with five wins in '09 and a bowl win in '10. With four straight wins to close out the year -- including a revenge win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl -- the Huskies appeared to be trending up. But another seven-win season last year was marred by what players described as one of the worst defenses in school history, prompting massive overhauls on the defensive side of the ball.

Fair or not (usually it's not), coaching is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. At some point -- probably in the near future -- seven wins aren't going to cut it anymore. Sarkisian knows it.

"I love our fans," he said. "That's what makes our fans great. They want us to be great. And that's why we were brought here. What I do know is this is a process. We've accomplished some really good things in three seasons. We're off to a pretty good start in year No. 4. We'll find out about ourselves in the next few weeks."

He's also hit the recruiting the recruiting trail hard and heavy -- putting up the proverbial fence and snagging top local players such as Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Kasen Williams and Jeff Lindquist. Since 2010, all of Washington's classes have been ranked in the top 25 nationally by ESPN, and the 2013 class currently ranks 20th.

"One of the real challenges for us, as we continue to move forward and our young players continue to develop, is the depth factor is evident," Sarkisian said. "That we have enough depth to endure the injuries when they occur. Those are the signs of a really good program. When a player goes down, the next guy that steps in, there isn't that drastic drop-off. I think we've really worked toward that direction. We're seeing a lot of that right now. That's the sign of the really good teams. Those teams where if someone goes out, sometimes the backup is better. And as all of these recruiting classes start coming together, that's what I want to be able to see. I don't want to see such a big discrepancy between our first-team unit and our second-team unit. We're starting to see that, but it has to continually get better."

The clock isn't exactly running out. But there's no more honeymoon, either. When renovations are completed on Husky Stadium and the team returns to its home field next year, it will be the start of Sarkisian's fifth season. Gigantic leaps forward will be preferable to baby steps.

"You look at conference records over the past three seasons and I think we have the fourth-best record in the conference behind the obvious ones of Oregon, SC and Stanford," he said. "From where we started to where we are, I feel good about the growth we've made."

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