By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — It took just three games for Steve Sarkisian to make Husky Nation a congregation filled with believers. In the first month of his first regular season as head coach of the University of Washington football program, Sark made his people bark with joy when the Huskies knocked off third-ranked USC on Sept. 19, 2009.
But going from the depths of football frustration to respectability, it turns out, has been much easier than going from good to great.
In UW’s past three games against top-10 teams, the Huskies have been outscored 174-58 and have come no closer than 34 points in any game.
On a night that will include the final game at Husky Stadium, pre-renovation, and a ceremony to honor the 1991 national championship team, the Huskies have to wonder whether tonight’s the night they take that next step in their development.
“Every game’s a good opportunity,” defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu said this week as his team prepared for sixth-ranked Oregon. “This would be a good game to win.”
In Year 3 of the Sarkisian era, the Huskies (6-2 overall, 4-1 in the Pacific-12 Conference) already have earned bowl eligibility for the second time and have dusted off six opponents with a combined 12-26 record. What they have yet to do is beat a legitimate contender.
And yet the Sarkisian-led Huskies have a few upsets under their collective belt over the years. Two wins over USC, upsets of Cal and Oregon State, and a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska has UW confident it can play with just about anyone.
“It just shows where our program is headed,” senior receiver Jermaine Kearse said. “We’re getting a lot of good wins.”
The Huskies aren’t just overdue for a win against a team near the top of the rankings, they’re also more than ready to hand the Ducks a rare loss. Oregon has beaten UW in seven consecutive meetings, dating back to the Huskies’ 42-10 win in 2003. Since then, the Ducks have outscored Washington 305-120 — an average of about 43-17 per game — while registering winning margins of at least 20 points in every victory.
Yet some in Husky Nation continue to fancy this as UW’s biggest rivalry — a little bit like the Seattle Mariners’ lopsided “rivalry” with the New York Yankees.
“We like playing these guys,” UW linebacker Cort Dennison said. “It’s a fun environment; it’s fun on the field. There are some heated discussions on the field sometimes, but that’s what makes college football fun, and that’s what makes this rivalry fun.”
The Huskies provided some rays of hope during the 2010 meeting in Eugene, where Oregon held an 18-13 lead early in the second half before pulling away for another blowout victory. That game marked the first start of UW quarterback Keith Price’s career, and he has come a long way since completing 14 of 28 passes for 127 yards in a conservative game plan.
Sarkisian has made no bones about the fact that he won’t be conservative tonight.
“We’ve got to score,” he said Monday. “I think we’re at a point as a football team that one of our strengths is our ability to be efficient and to score, especially in the red zone, to create some big plays. And I don’t want to lose that about us.”
The game already has the makings of one for the ages, with the 1991 UW team coming back and Husky Stadium set to begin a renovation project early next week. The past and future of UW football will be celebrated on one single night, and yet Sarkisian said his team needs to stay in the moment.
And on this night, that means trying to take the next step by knocking off a top-10 team.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Sarkisian, whose UW teams have a 5-8 record against top-25 teams during his tenure. “We’ve been in big games before. This isn’t new to us in that this is a bigger game than any of these other ones we’ve played.
“We’ve been in some pretty big ones — some at home, and some on the road. Not all of those games have we put our best foot forward, and we’ve seen the outcome of those games. But there have been games where we have put our best foot forward, and we’ve performed well and succeeded.”
If the Huskies can do that tonight, maybe the days of 1991 won’t seem so far away.