After Washington’s 23-17 loss to BYU Saturday night, we were told it wasn’t a make-or-break game. We were told that it’s just one loss, and it’s just the first game of the season. We were given ample reason to believe that the Huskies didn’t feel as bruised on the inside as they looked on the outside. And all of that may end up panning out to be true.
But what hurt most watching the game unfold was thinking about how it was another opportunity missed; another chance to set themselves for that next step up in competition. The three close road losses in 2009 each were tough to take for their own reasons: The Notre Dame felt like a win was taken away from them; the UCLA game felt like it was just on the tips of their fingers, just ever so elusive. And the way the Arizona State game just felt embarrassing.
The way the Huskies lost at BYU felt slightly different: The effort was there, as it’s always been under Steve Sarkisian. Sure, they had mental breakdowns, and frankly they were physically the inferior team. But more than anything, they just appeared to lack a belief, a belief that this game was going to end up differently than all the others. They led at half, 17-13 – but they did that too at Notre Dame and UCLA. Last year, it could maybe be explained away because the coaches didn’t know what they had, or had a full level of trust in the players they had.
This year there was supposed to be none of that. The coaching staff remained intact; a vast majority of 2009’s players were back, with a year of experience under their belts; this team had supposedly bought in at a level that would erase the fact that the Huskies were on a current 12-game road losing streak. And to be fair, Sarkisian and his staff were only responsible for half that, and you certainly wouldn’t confuse Sarkisian’s woes away from Husky Stadium with the total ineptness of Tyrone Willingham. And also to be fair, Sarkisian has had to rely on a lot of players he recruited personally, and they used 13 true freshmen against the Cougars, a school record.
But he hasn’t made as much headway as we thought, and he’s having to live and die with a lot of that youth. A win over BYU would have put a lot of that talk to rest, even with all those youngsters running around. A win over BYU would have gotten the Huskies off to their first 1-0 start since Willingham marched into Syracuse and came away a 42-12 winner – Jake Locker’s first start as Washington’s quarterback.
Locker, for his part, was feeling the affects of a headache given to him by UW’s special teams, which put him in poor field position all game long. The best field position the Huskies had against BYU was their first drive of the game – where they started at their own 27-yard line. And they scored. It was the six times they were inside their own 20 that ended up killing them. Moving the ball downfield became a chore only Sisyphus would have welcomed as a respite. The senior saw the game go out the window, as well as any chance he had at Heisman glory when he was unable to move the team on two fourth downs in the fourth quarter.
“We need to make plays when they present themselves,” Locker said after the game. Instead of the apparently more talented Huskies stepping up when it counted, it was guys like J.J. DiLuigi and Eathyn Manumaleuna. Instead of the up-and-coming Huskies making the plays that mattered, it was the relatively unheralded guys of a consistent, winning program that made it happen. They clearly believed when Washington questioned themselves.
“We didn’t do what we were supposed to do, we just came out there and did our own thing,” Chris Polk said, matter-of-factly. Those comments will probably get Polk in the dawghouse, but he’s absolutely right. They didn’t believe in what they were doing, and it showed when they couldn’t move the ball out of their own shadow on kickoff returns. And when they did get stops, they killed themselves with needless penalties.
The reality is, they’ll get a lot of the stuff they did wrong Saturday night fixed. That’s how teams improved, and over the course of 2009, Washington definitely improved. And they may not face as physical a team as BYU all year long. But the truth is, this was supposed to be the Huskies’ coming out party. This was supposed to be where any questions about them not being able to perform on the road were taken out back and given the whipping they deserved. Instead, the same questions will be recycled in a few weeks when they travel to USC. And it’s a shame too, because like those other tough losses a year ago, this game was well within their grasp. Had they stuck together for 60 minutes, instead of having their belief and trust in themselves abandon them in the crucial moments, the outcome may have been altogether different. And that’s college football; it doesn’t take but a breakdown here or there, and that’s the difference.
“You feel like you’ve got to maximize field pressure opportunities because you don’t know how many you’re going to get,” Sarkisian said.
The scariest part about Saturday night is just how close Washington was to winning the game. They score a touchdown on either fourth quarter drive, and they leave Provo a point ahead on the scoreboard. They are so hungry for roadkill, they’d take it any way they could get it – and it would have been as ugly as they come because it would have masked serious deficiencies in all three phases of the game. And as Utah showed on Thursday night, good teams known how to win ugly, even when ugly is all you have in the tank that night.
Steve Sarkisian is right – this loss will not make or break them. But a win could have been so much more than just a win; it could have been a launching pad for something truly great, including a possible Game Day against Nebraska and all the positive publicity that entails. Now it feels like square one all over again, wondering what could have been, as well as what might be.
“I know just this one game won’t define our season,” he said. “We’ve got 12 more football teams to play.”
It may have just been a slip of the tongue, or Sark may have alr