For the second time in two years, the Washington Huskies concluded a football season by losing a bowl game to an opponent they could have beaten. But while the prevailing emotion after the 2011 Alamo Bowl was an anger borne of futility, the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl left Huskies fans optimistic.
Unlike the abomination in San Antonio, where the defense appeared girded to cinder blocks, no overhauling of Steve Sarkisian’s coaching staff will be necessary. With an abundance of talented starters returning on both sides of the ball, Washington figures to recruit with an emphasis on adding depth.
Last season ended with a clunker that posed more questions than it answered. Really, 777 yards and 33 first downs surrounded against Baylor? An average Bears gain of 9.1 yards per play? The offseason shaped up as a respite, a time to clean house and fathom the notion of a major rebuilding project awaiting the defense.
Even though the Huskies’ 28-26 defeat to Boise State on Saturday left them with another 7-6 record, it’s as if next season can’t begin too soon.
Led by Las Vegas Bowl MVP Bishop Sankey, who set a Huskies bowl record with 205 rushing yards – the sophomore produced another 74 yards on six short passes that might as well have been running attempts – all of the play makers are in the fold for 2013: Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and wide receiver Kasen Williams will be juniors, and quarterback Keith Price will be a senior.
Price has had better games than the one that ended with an interception of a last-minute pass he threw from midfield. He’s had, for that matter, a better season, and if the young offensive line grows up and learns to assert itself with confidence, Price figures to enjoy a senior season that’s as scintillating as his sophomore season was.
But the strength of Sarkisian’s fifth team at Washington will be a defense that’s fast, energetic and potentially dynamic. Middle linebacker John Timu, who was in on 15 tackles Saturday, is a sophomore. Fellow linebacker Travis Feeney is a redshirt freshman, and hybrid safety-linebacker Shaq Thompson is a true freshman.
As the UW defense did in the Apple Cup, the Huskies against Boise State failed to hold on to a lead late in the fourth quarter. But there’s more to the story: If the kickoff unit takes care of business – if the kickoff itself isn’t a short, floating pooch – the Broncos don’t start their drive to score the winning field goal 42 yards from the Washington goal line.
The theme of Sarkisian’s post-game address to his players was how they must learn to finish. When Travis Coons’ field goal gave UW a 26-25 lead with 4:09 remaining, several Huskies gathered on the sideline during the ensuing commercial break and celebrated. Maybe that’s the wrong word – there was nothing to celebrate yet – but they embraced each other and swayed.
Innocent enthusiasm has its place, especially at a bowl game. But a one-point lead, with 4:09 remaining, is best protected by realizing it’s only a one-point lead.
The lead would have been more than one point had Washington been more efficient, and a little smarter, in the Boise State red zone. For instance, a third-and-2 opportunity inside the Broncos’ 10-yard line, in the first quarter, found Sarkisian calling for a pass play out of an empty backfield.
The formation was curious for two reasons: Boise State had allowed only three touchdown passes in 2012 – its defense ranked best in the nation in that category – and Sankey already had revealed himself as a tackle-busting load.
Without Sankey in the equation, Price’s pass fell incomplete, and the Huskies settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
Later, on a crucial third down during the Huskies’ penultimate drive, a more accurate Price pass fell through the hands of freshman wide receiver Jaydon Mickens. Again, a field goal instead of a touchdown.
Said Sarkisian afterward, in a summation that referenced the Apple Cup: “A couple of plays here and there, and we’re a 9-4 team instead of 7-6.”
While a tone of dejection could be heard in Sarkisian’s voice, this wasn’t a guy contemplating the kind of coaching-staff shake-up that forced him to fire former defensive coordinator Nick Holt a year ago. This was a guy excited about his team’s chances to win at least nine games in 2013.
By the way, the 2013 schedule kicks off with an Aug. 31 rematch against Boise State at a refurbished Husky Stadium. The Broncos, who relish any opportunity to take on a Pacific-12 Conference opponent, will be up to the task. They won’t beat themselves. They won’t commit absent-minded penalties. They won’t turn the ball over more than it’s turned over to them.
But the Huskies have enough sheer physical ability to beat Boise State. That much was clear Saturday, and it will be clear come August.
“I wish,” Sarkisian said in his radio interview, “we could play that game next week.”
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