By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Alameda Ta’amu has done and seen a lot since he arrived at the University of Washington in the fall of 2008.
Now in his third year as a starting defensive tackle, the junior from Kent has been through the worst season in program history, has watched his coaching staff get overhauled and has banged heads with more than a few future NFL players.
But there’s still one thing Ta’amu wants to experience before he leaves the program. And he knows that won’t happen unless he accomplishes another.
The junior class on the UW football team feels as close to a bowl game as it has ever been. But to get there, Ta’amu and his classmates have to finally win a road game.
“It’s kind of annoying, actually,” Ta’amu said of never being a part of a road win at UW. “Hopefully we can get one this weekend.”
The last time the Huskies won a football game on the road was Nov. 3, 2007, when coach Tyrone Willingham earned a victory over his former team in Stanford, Calif.
Thirty-four months and 12 losses later, the Huskies are still trying to win another.
Second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, whose team will open its season at Brigham Young University on Saturday afternoon, believes this year’s team has enough experienced leaders to bring home a road win. He counted off several of them Monday afternoon, not realizing that three of the seven players he named — juniors Jermaine Kearse, Senio Kelemete and Cort Dennison — have yet to be a part of a victory on the road.
For Sarkisian, ending the streak comes down to one simple word. Finishing has been the coach’s mantra for most of the past month.
“It’s something that is stressed at every practice and that I think guys are starting to understand,” Sarkisian said of his constant reminder about the importance of finishing plays, drives and games.
The Huskies lost all five of their road games last season, but three of them — an overtime loss at Notre Dame, a last-second heartbreaker at Arizona State and a one-point defeat at UCLA — were well within UW’s reach in the final minute. Had the Huskies finished those games, Sarkisian maintains, they may well have wrapped up the 2009 regular season with an 8-4 record and that ever-elusive trip to a bowl game.
“It’s all about finishing, like Coach Sark says,” Ta’amu said Tuesday night. “In past years, we haven’t been finishers. But this year’s going to be different.”
Of the 105 players on UW’s roster, just nine have experienced a road victory. One of them — senior quarterback Jake Locker — said last year’s near-misses will help the Huskies this fall.
“The positions we were in last year give us a little bit of experience,” Locker said Monday. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, and I think we were able to go back each week and look at certain drives, certain points in the game where it was a vital point in the process of this game and us winning, and we didn’t get it done. So I think there’s been a focus on when we’re ahead, finishing drives and keeping ourselves ahead.”
While Locker and six teammates have been in on celebratory return trips in the distant past, most of the current Huskies don’t know what it’s like to fly back from a game in a good mood.
“Usually the talk’s down, people are trying to keep to themselves. I know I have (been like that) in the past,” junior cornerback Quinton Richardson said. “Now I’m just happy to see what it’s going to be like. Hopefully, we’ll be fortunate enough to get this win so we can see what it’s like (to have) a few smiles on the plane ride back.”
When it comes to road games, there are certainly friendlier environments than the one that awaits UW in Provo, Utah, this Saturday. The temperatures are expected to be in the 90s, and the elevation of about 4,500 feet will test the Huskies’ lungs.
“It’s something that is obviously going to be present, and so we understand that,” Locker said of the conditions this weekend. “I think it’s making sure we stay up-tempo at practice this week, as we have through camp, to get us in that game shape — and maybe even a little bit more.
“And then when we get there, (it’s about) making sure we run around a little bit and get used to it and familiar with it, so when we go out for warmups it’s not a complete shock to our body.”
No matter the conditions, it won’t be like playing in the familiar confines of Husky Stadium.
“It’s always good to go out and try to get your first win on the road, against a great team, but it’s always an advantage playing at Husky Stadium,” senior linebacker Mason Foster said. “We want to go out and show the nation that we can compete with whoever. Win or loss, we want to go in there, definitely win on the road and set our season off right against a great team.”
And if that happens, maybe Ta’amu and his fellow juniors will finally get to check something else off their college to-do list.
“If we win, there’s going to be a party in the bus,” he said. “I’m ready to experience that.”
Senior linebacker Brandon Huppert (knee) was the only player to sit out Tuesday’s practice with an injury. He’s been ruled out of Saturday’s game, while defensive end Kalani Aldrich (knee) could be a game-time decision after being limited this week. Wide receiver James Johnson (ankle) looked as healthy as he has all camp and appears likely to be available for the BYU game. … Redshirt freshman Keith Price took a few snaps with the first team Tuesday, adding fuel to the fire that he’s likely to be the first quarterback called upon should Locker get hurt. True freshman Nick Montana worked exclusively with the scout team Tuesday. Sarkisian has not officially named a primary backup to Locker and could try to keep opponents guessing until Price or Montana actually plays in a game.