Can Huskies run with the big dogs?

SEATTLE — During a 30-minute Monday afternoon press gathering that came in the aftermath of Saturday’s humbling 41-3 loss at LSU, Steve Sarkisian did everything short of calling this a program-defining week for his University of Washington football team.

The Huskies’ head coach said this week is “almost like a healing process” for the UW football program and added that it was “back to the drawing board.” He admitted that a recent spate of injuries have already filled this season with the most adversity he’s felt since arriving at the school in 2009 but shrugged and added, “This is the hand we’ve been dealt.”

And then Sarkisian’s most frank assessment came when he was asked how it felt to watch tape of the LSU game.

“It made me want to puke, quite honestly,” he said. “That’s just how I’ve felt for 48 hours because we’re better than that.”

But the real question, from a talent standpoint, seems to be this: Are they?

The Huskies might be on a two-year streak of bowl games, they might be on the cusp of being a top-25 team, and they might even be on their way to one day get mentioned alongside Pacific-12 Conference powers Oregon, USC and Stanford. But for now, questions remain about just how much talent there is at UW.

The Huskies have put together some top-30 recruiting classes under Sarkisian, if one is to believe the mystical Signing Day rankings that come out every February, and yet the chasm in talent between UW and some national powers has rarely been as evident.

The loss to third-ranked LSU accentuated the point. The Huskies looked at times like a junior varsity team trying to compete with the big boys.

In Sarkisian’s first game at UW just over three years ago, the Huskies battled LSU into the fourth quarter; on Saturday, the Tigers blasted UW off the ball on nearly every snap and continually reminded onlookers just how far apart the programs are in terms of talent.

And yet Sarkisian, whose current team is made up almost entirely of players recruited under his watch, believes talent is not the issue. He said Monday that his team has the talent to compete at a national level, despite Saturday’s performance.

“I think we have a talented team,” Sarkisian said. “I think that (LSU is) a talented football team, obviously. I feel like we probably haven’t played to our capabilities yet, and we probably didn’t take advantage of some of the opportunities that we had in that game that maybe could have changed the momentum.”

After hanging with LSU and upsetting third-ranked USC in two of his first three games at UW, Sarkisian has thus far been unable to unearth his own recruits to challenge at the elite national level. The Huskies’ best players under his watch continue to be Tyrone Willingham recruits — Jake Locker, Chris Polk, Mason Foster, Donald Butler, Jermaine Kearse and Senio Kelemete are atop the list and current quarterback Keith Price was originally a Willingham recruit before Sarkisian’s staff convinced him to honor a verbal commitment to UW. But Sarkisian recruits have often struggled with injury and underachievement.

In Year 4 of the Sarkisian era, the Huskies are thin at tailback, wide receiver and offensive line, and their defense still has a long way to go to compete with some of the Pac-12’s premier offenses. Injuries are major factors, and the young players Sarkisian has called upon have thus far struggled to live up.

Offensive line has the biggest question marks, due in large part to injuries to Class of 2010 recruits Colin Porter (no longer playing because of chronic shoulder problems) and Erik Kohler (the latest in a serious of injuries happened Saturday night, when he re-injured his knee). Sarkisian opened up at least two starting spots this week, leaving the entire right side of the line in disarray.

At tailback, where Polk had been a building block of the program, the Huskies have been unable to find a capable replacement. Jesse Callier suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, a series of knee injuries have kept star 2010 recruit Deontae Cooper off the field for three years now, and sophomore Bishop Sankey has 30 carries for 82 yards in two games this season.

While prized recruits from last year’s class like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Kasen Williams and Danny Shelton have shown flashes, and top freshman Shaq Thompson has already made an impact, the Sarkisian recruiting classes have yet to take UW to the next level.

The program seems stuck in a pattern of eternal youth. Injuries have certainly been a factor, but Sarkisian wasn’t leaning on that crutch after Saturday’s 38-point humbling loss.

“I will never give you an excuse of why we didn’t play well,” he said Monday. “It’s obviously pretty clear we’ve dealt with some pretty significant injuries on our roster. That being said, when I look at our starting 22, I like those guys when we go take the field.

“We are more than capable of winning big football games. And I think we’ll see that as the season goes on.”

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