In exchange for the $1.85 million or so the University of Washington is paying Steve Sarkisian this year, the school's head football coach must tolerate the opinions of second guessers.
While the Huskies were stumbling toward a defeat that likely will be looked upon as a 2010 turning point, those who criticized Sarkisian’s decisions distinguished themselves from those who play on Sarkisian’s team.
At least the second guessing was performed with a high degree of energy.
That fake field-goal in the second quarter, with the ball at the Arizona State 31 and the Huskies 18 yards away from a first down? Ridiculous, and not just because Sarkisian turned down a chance to pin the Sun Devils deep inside their territory with a pooch punt.
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What made the call ridiculous was asking kick-holder Cody Bruns to run for 18 yards.
(Note to Sarkisian – and, Sark, feel free to pass this on to your former boss, Pete Carroll: save the tomfoolery for fourth-and-short.)
The offensive game plan limiting the running-back tandem of Chris Polk and Jesse Callier to 21 rushing attempts despite an October monsoon that created havoc for the same UW receivers known to drop passes on a day so clear you can see forever? Inexcusable. Polk averaged 6.1 yards on 18 carries, Callier averaged 6.7 on three carries.
Speaking of Callier: He picked up an additional 24 yards on three receptions, and 81 yards on two kickoff returns. The good news is, the freshman averaged a little more than 15 yards whenever he touched the ball.
The bad news? He touched the ball only eight times.
It can be argued Sarkisian is deserving of a mulligan in the aftermath of his masterful work last week at USC. So, OK, he gets a mulligan for the ridiculous fake field goal, and another mulligan for the inexcusable game plan.
But I can’t ignore Sarkisian’s most boneheaded decision of all – a decision that’s particularly troubling after what we learned, or thought we learned, from the Huskies’ victory over USC.
Remember how backup quarterback Keith Price delivered in the clutch against the Trojans? Remember Price, briefly substituting for the woozy Jake Locker, turning the boldest gamble of Sarkisian’s UW career into a touchdown pass?
Price’s role, as a redshirt freshman and future full-time quarterback candidate, is to avail himself for a snap, or a series, or a game – or, heaven forbid, the remainder of the season – in case Locker can’t answer the bell.
Locker took the field against the Sun Devils struggling with flu-like symptoms that inhibited his breathing. Not a prototypical football injury, perhaps, but a condition qualifying as severe.
It’s tough enough to avoid a pass rush and then bull into the likes of Vontaze Burfict, the 245-pound linebacker ASU coach Dennis Erickson has compared to Ray Lewis. It’s even tougher to bull into Vontaze Burfict without being able to, like, breathe.
Locker’s admirable tenacity was underscored by the post-game details of his Saturday-night fever. Something about Locker wasn’t right against the Sun Devils, that much was suspected. Instead of exhorting teammates between plays, as he did at USC, Locker’s sole priority was to consult the formation-cue chart attached to his left forearm.
In any case, news of his illness was as a surprise to everybody beyond the home sideline at Husky Stadium. He toughed it out during a demoralizing defeat. But with a little help from his head coach, Locker might’ve had the strength to muster the UW’s second fourth-quarter comeback in two weeks.
“We lost the element of Jake running around there,” Sarkisian said. “He’d run and he couldn’t catch his breath back for the entire drive. I don’t think we got 100 percent of him.”
Back to Price: He’s the emergency backup. I’m not sure how Sarkisian defines “emergency,” but a superior running quarterback who finds himself gassed whenever he runs – uh, isn’t that an emergency?
If Sarkisian summons the backup quarterback for a drive here and there, Locker has an opportunity to gather himself on the bench.
Granted, Price isn’t the ideal solution when a pivotal game is hanging in the balance – aside from that touchdown pass last week, he’s been restricted to mop-up duty in the one-sided victory over Syracuse and the one-sided defeat against Nebraska – but Saturday wasn’t the time to quibble over the backup quarterback’s résumé.
Saturday was the time to use him.
Besides, isn’t grooming replacements a major purpose of spring practice? Price showed enough in both the spring and preseason camps to distance himself on the depth chart from the No. 3 quarterback, true freshman Nick Montana.
“He really has matured physically,” Sarkisian said of Price in May, recalling how the quarterback first came to Washington “at about 170 pounds soaking wet.
“Now he’s up over 190 pounds,” Sarkisian continued. “He’s got terrific feet, and the thing I really admire about him is that he has the arm strength.
“The ball he throws can really rip through the wind, which is important at Husky Stadium.”
So Price is mature physically, with terrific feet and the arm strength to withstand the often daunting weather conditions at Husky Stadium.
And yet, on a night Locker wasn’t playing at full strength – in retrospect, he was closer to 50 percent than 100 percent – all Price could do was watch his wheezing teammate.
Discounting the three times Locker was sacked, he ran eight times against the Sun Devils, which is eight times too many for a guy challenged to breathe. During a late timeout with 2:02 remaining, when a healthy Locker is plotting for the quick-strike touchdown that precedes the onside kick, the ghost inhabiting that No. 10 jersey took a knee.
As for Steve Sarkisian and the $1.85 million he has been paid to negotiate his 2010 roster through sickness and health, he’ll enjoy better games.
Count on this, for no other reason than it’s almost impossible to imagine a head coach having a worse game.