SEATTLE – One trend Steve Sarkisian is trying to build since arriving as head coach at Washington is this: produce teams that know how to close the show.
In three of the four seasons Sarkisian has been running the UW football program, the Huskies have used closing wins to at least engender hope. In two of the last three seasons, end-of-season runs have vaulted them into a bowl game and turned around midseason perceptions of underachievement.
It has happened again this year. Washington has won four in a row heading into the 105th Apple Cup this Friday in Pullman.
In 2009, Sarkisian’s first year, Washington finished the season with two wins by a combined score of 72-10, including a 30-0 Apple Cup drubbing of Washington State at Husky Stadium. Those wins gave hope that 2010 might produce something better than a 5-7 record.
It did. Barely. Washington tip-toed the cliff’s edge from mid-November on to qualify for a bowl game. The Huskies were 3-6 after Oregon came to Husky Stadium and stomped Washington, 53-16. Jake Locker’s final season was looking dismal.
But, Washington rapidly began to turn things around behind rushing and defense. Sound familiar?
Chris Polk began 2010’s surge when he ran for a then-career-high of 138 yards against old friend Rick Neuheisel and UCLA in a 24-7 win. That bumped Washington to 4-6, while Locker tried to shield a cracked rib.
A 16-13 win against Cal followed when Polk scored a touchdown on the final play. Then, Locker hit Jermaine Kearse with a 27-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds to play against Washington State for a 35-28 win. That all set up a return to bowl eligibility and helped give credence to Sarkisian’s message.
The upset of a disinterested Nebraska team that followed in the Holiday Bowl buoyed those happy thoughts even more.
This season, Washington has lifted itself from a 3-4 record following a stern scheduling run early in the season.
As the schedule lightened, the Huskies have been able to dust themselves off, much like 2010.
“It just shows the philosophy around here about finishing,” Washington center Drew Schaefer said. “That’s the mentality we take in the offseason, (in) everything we do.”
The rapid accumulation of late-season wins via improved defense is a shared trait between this season and 2010. During its four-game winning streak to finish 2010, the Huskies allowed just 13.7 points a game. Over the course of this current four-game winning streak, Washington has allowed an average of 12 points a game.
There are also several differences. Locker was in his last hurrah that season. Washington also had to win out just to reach its first bowl game since 2002.
“Our backs we’re really against the wall,” Sarkisian said. “Those were must-wins.”
The majority of players on this season’s team are Sarkisian recruits. In 2010, most of the roster was made up of Tyrone Willingham’s recruits. Though it’s just two years later, the playmakers from 2010 are not involved in this season’s turnaround.
“It’s just such a different group of guys,” Sarkisian said.
If this team can beat Washington State on Friday for Sarkisian’s fourth consecutive Apple Cup win, the Huskies will reach the eight-win plateau for the first time since 2001.
“It’s been impressive to watch this team fight through the adversity then continue to get better and build,” Sarkisian said.
New group, similar results to finish things off.todd.dybas@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas