The main issue, as the aggressive marketing campaign has reminded us throughout the summer, is that UW has lost its “Dawgs.”
A creative campaign using the slogan “Have You Seen Our Lost Dawgs?” is taking aim at th e countless UW alumni who have lost touch with the football program.
So where have they gone?
It’s a safe bet that many of them will be holed up, in taverns or in front of family television sets, from Seattle to Snohomish County to places like New York and Florida, watching tonight’s nationally-televised game against 11th-ranked LSU with a curious eye.
The addition of a new coach, 35-year-old former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian, has allowed fans to turn their hopes forward and stop looking back — if for only one night. A valiant performance against the highly-favored Tigers could be the first step toward rebuilding the fan base.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got to play hard,” Sarkisian said Thursday. “Hopefully, the way we play, and the manner in which we play, that’s going to make people want to come back and watch us again.”
For the past five years, the UW football program has been a little bit like a James Frey memoir: depressing, painful and, quite frankly, a bit hard to believe. Tonight, Husky fans get to turn the page.
A new era of Husky football begins tonight, with Sarkisian running the show, high-priced assistant Nick Holt unveiling his defense and Locker returning from a thumb injury that cost him the final eight games of UW’s 0-12 season in 2008.
While Husky Stadium is likely to be filled with energetic fans dressed in purple, half the onlookers may well be LSU fans who made the trip to the Pacific Northwest. Washington’s once-proud fan base has steadily jumped off the bandwagon and into the nearby waters of Lake Washington.
“Last year, we saw a lot of fans leaving the games early,” said starting safety Greg Walker, a redshirt freshman. “And fans weren’t coming out like they used to in previous years.”
A steady decline — from the 2000 Rose Bowl team, to Keith Gilbertson’s .500 team in 2003, to the 0-12 campaign that capped off Tyrone Willingham’s forgettable tenure — has driven many of the program’s fence-sitters to other interests. Famous UW alumni like Hope Solo, Warren Moon, David Horsey and actor Joel McHale were contacted for this story, but none of them had time to talk Husky football.
Others, like former coaches Don James and Jim Lambright, as well as ex-Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, have been driven to Sarkisian’s open practices by curiosity. And several former players are expected to attend tonight’s game — the most notable being Billy Joe Hobert, who hasn’t been back for a game since leaving the school in 1992. Longtime NFL running back Corey Dillon is also expected to be on hand while being honored as a Husky Legend.
Even the most passionate UW football fans have been rather quiet in recent years, and the school is turning to Sarkisian to help bring them back.
Without putting the onus solely on Sarkisian, athletic director Scott Woodward said earlier this week that he hopes the nationally-televised game will make a statement not only to alumni but also to prospective students and fans.
It’s as important an opener as the Huskies have had in years.
“It’s a big game just for us as a team, to prove that this hard work and dedication paid off,” junior cornerback Vonzell McDowell Jr. said. “It’s been hard for the last two years, especially last year, and we kind of owe it to ourselves to see that the hard work is paying off, to prove that if you work hard, good things will come.”
Senior linebacker Donald Butler is taking a bowl-game-or-bust approach to his final season at UW.
“Expectations are high,” he said. “I want that bowl game, and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure my guys are ready on the defensive side of the ball.”
Walker said that before he’s finished at UW, he wants the program to be back in familiar territory.
“We want to bring Washington football back to where it used to be: national championships, Rose Bowls,” he said.
The only expectation Sarkisian is making is that the Huskies will ea rn the respect of their opponent after each game. That couldn’t be said for some recent UW teams, as even the alumni were turned off by them.
Beginning tonight, the school hopes to win back a fan base that once was among the most fervent in the Pac-10.
“I don’t really think we have anything to lose, to be honest,” Walker said. “Everybody expects us to fail. So we’ve got a lot to prove to ourselves.”
And to the so-called “Lost Dawgs.”
BREAKDOWN | LSU AT Washington
Where: Husky Stadium, SeattleWhen: Today, 7:30 p.mTelevision: ESPN Radio: KJR (950 AM)Records: Season opener for both teams.Coaches: Washington’s Steve Sarkisian (first year, 0-0 career record) vs. LSU’s Les Miles (eighth year, 70-32)
5 KEYS TO THE GAME
This ain’t ’08
If the Huskies’ first drive results in an interception return for a touchdown, fans are undoubtedly going to mutter: “Here we go again.” The players can’t fall into the same trap. Stinkin’ thinkin’ is what helped drag down the 2008 Huskies. This year’s team has to keep its collective chin up. And, yes, Husky fans, there are such things as moral victories.
Contain, contain, contain
Nobody will dispute that LSU has more speed than the Huskies, so the key for UW’s defenders is to keep the speedy Tigers in front of them. Big plays could make this one turn ugly, quickly, and so the Huskies’ defense will have to give up some short gains to prevent the long ones.
Patience is a virtue
Young teams led by first-year coaches can fall into a trap of trying to score two touchdowns on the opening drive. The Huskies, and new coach Steve Sarkisian, have to be patient if they want to stay within striking distance. Long, boring drives are much more effective than quick gambles — especially when you’re outmanned at nearly every position.
Run, Jake, run
As much as the new coaching staff has preached staying in the pocket, QB Jake Locker’s best weapons remain his legs. He can’t risk another injury by taking off on every snap, but Locker is more likely to convert a key third down with his legs than with his arm.
It’s LSU, not WSUNo matter what happens tonight, the Huskies can take solace in the fact that they’re playing one of the power teams from the nation’s best conference. Even a blowout loss won’t signal another lost season.Scott M. Johnson, Herald writer
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