All offseason, off-the-charts enthusiasm ran rampant around the University of Washington.
Few in the program dissuaded talk about contending for a Pacific-10 Conference football championship, or finding Rose Bowl grandeur this season – especially with senior quarterback Jake Locker in the fold.
Goals of that magnitude come with a heavy burden.
What’s been so perplexing about the Huskies’ season is why their performance hasn’t exactly matched their aspirations.
Yet, as they enter tonight’s key conference matchup against Arizona State at Husky Stadium, they are 2-2 – in essence, on the fence for what their season can become.
A win, and they’re 3-2. More important, they’re 2-0 in the Pac-10.
A loss, and they’re 2-3, and staring at other must-win situations on the road – and down the road – at Oregon, at Arizona and at California just to keep their postseason hopes ticking.
UW coach Steve Sarkisian would never place such high importance on an early-October game like tonight. But a victory would go a long way in building on what the team accomplished last week – defeating then-No. 18 Southern California, 32-31, and snapping a 13-game road skid.
“It’s all about being confident – being confident in yourself, being confident in your teammates,” Huskies linebacker Cort Dennison said. “We need to take that mind-set with us the rest of the year.”
Until last week, this team had not acted – or played – with the level of confidence it takes to win big games.
Why, after weeks of spring ball and training camp and most of September, did it take them so long to find their groove?
“I don’t know. I wish it could take one (week),” Sarkisian said. “I just know when the bye came, we had the chance to ... really look at ourselves in the mirror, and not just individually, but as a group. I think we’ve found a little something here that can kind of keep us rolling.”
For whatever reason – inexperience at key spots, heavy expectations to get to a bowl game, playing for a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate in Locker – the team started the season flat, especially offensively. And as Sarkisian pointed out, the Huskies eventually became too concerned with being perfect.
“(Against USC), I thought our team, in general, played in the absence of fear,” Sarkisian said. “We weren’t worried about losing. We weren’t worried about making a mistake. I just thought we played football.
“You could see it in Jake’s game, but I thought we also saw it in our team’s demeanor. On the sidelines, even when things went bad ... our kids were loose. That’s the best mentality for us to be in right now.”
A big win, like the one the Huskies celebrated against the Trojans, can keep a team locked into that fearless mind-set.
After three straight losses, Dennis Erickson and his Sun Devils staff are in the same position Sarkisian and his staff were in more than a week ago: trying to get a team refocused on how to win games.
“That’s not easy,” Erickson said. “Any coach in the world would tell you that. The positive is that our players know that we can compete against anybody. We have to do the right things.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org
ARIZONA STATE (2-3, 0-2 PAC-10) AT WASHINGTON (2-2, 1-0)
Kickoff: 7:15 p.m., Husky Stadium, Seattle.
TV: Fox Sports Northwest. Radio: 950-AM.
The series: UW leads, 15-14. The Sun Devils have won six in a row against the Huskies, including last season’s 24-17 victory in Tempe, Ariz. The last UW win came in 2001 (33-31). ASU coach Dennis Erickson (also at Washington State, Miami, Oregon State) is 5-6 all-time against the UW.
WHAT TO WATCH: Will this be the week Jake Locker has the green light to go bombs-away? Pressure from the front seven of ASU’s defense has been spotty, at best. And aside from Omar Bolden, ASU’s secondary can be picked on, with its other three starters (Deveron Carr, Clint Floyd and Keelan Johnson) logging just 19 starts among them – 13 coming this season. ... How long will the Sun Devils keep middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict parked? The over and under – a series. It might only last a couple of plays. Coach Dennis Erickson knows in attacking Locker, Burfict is ASU’s best weapon. ... How road weary will ASU be? Six consecutive games to start the season; three games in a row on the road; three consecutive losses heading into today’s game in Seattle – now that is a grind.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: A 32-31 win last week over Southern California put the Huskies back on track for a bowl bid. Winning these next two games at home, and going to 4-2 is a must before getting into the meat of their schedule.
TNT PICK: Huskies, 28-27.
No. Name (position)Ht./Wt.Year
7 Vontaze Burfict (MLB)6-3/245 Sophomore
Scary thing isn’t his temper – it’s how he makes football look so easy.
14 Steven Threet (QB)6-5/240 Junior
If he can reduce interceptions (10), the strong-armed starter could produce a big game.
25 Deantre Lewis (RB)5-10/189 Freshman
Bum shoulder shouldn’t keep him from fourth 100-yard rushing day.
28 Thomas Weber (PK)6-1/207Senior
His 43 field goals the past two seasons most ever by an ASU placekicker.
50 Lawrence Guy (DT)6-5/300 Junior
Leader of Sun Devils’ stout line; next tackle will be 100th of his career.
No. Name (position)Ht./Wt.Year
1 Chris Polk (RB) 5-11/214Sophomore
Another true freshman (ASU’s Lewis) trying to steal his thunder? Feed him the ball.
6 Desmond Trufant (CB)6-0/177Sophomore
After pair of subpar outings, team needs Wilson High grad to bounce back.
10 Jake Locker (QB)6-3/230Senior
Needs 82 yards to move past Brock Huard (6,391) for UW’s No. 2 all-time passer.
17 Erik Folk (PK) 5-11/197Junior
More leg on kickoffs needed to slow ASU’s Kyle Middlebrooks and Omar Bolden.
52 Hau’oli Jamora (DE)6-3/238Freshman
Someone needs to create havoc on edges; betting he’s the one to step forward.
Todd Milles, The News Tribune