SEATTLE — Two months into his first season as a head coach, Steve Sarkisian is starting to sound like a broken record. And he knows it.
“It’s somewhat of a recurring theme when you keep coming up here saying coulda, shoulda, woulda,” the University of Washington’s first-year football coach said to open his Monday press conference this week.
With a few notable exceptions, Sarkisian’s Mondays have generally been spent talking about close losses this season. Four of the Huskies’ past five games came down to the final minute, and three of those were losses. An overtime loss at Notre Dame, a last-second loss to Arizona State and Saturday’s one-point defeat at UCLA have helped drop UW from a bowl contender to its familiar role of also-ran in the Pac-10.
As Sarkisian pointed out during his Monday press conference: “You think about this game, you think about Arizona State, you think about Notre Dame, in a blink, we’re a 6-3 football team right now instead of 3-6. And this is a whole different press conference right now.”
Due in large part to struggles in the red zone and an inability to deliver in the clutch, the Huskies have shown their youth since surprising the nation with a memorable, 63-yard drive to set up the game-winning field goal in a Sept. 19 game against USC.
UW’s final drives in three close games since then have consisted of two three-and-outs, an interception, a sack, two first downs and zero points.
The Huskies’ only victory since that upset of USC came courtesy of a fluke play: Mason Foster’s interception return touchdown after an Arizona pass bounced off the intended receiver’s foot.
Through it all, the Huskies have learned some hard lessons with some late losses.
“What we’ve been through as a team and these types of ball games is going to help shape who we become in the future,” Sarkisian said. “This team is growing leaps and bounds from an adversity standpoint in dealing with adversity and staying focused and staying on course and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The latest near miss may have been the hardest to take because the UW offense was actually clicking at the right time. Jake Locker and Co. were bringing back memories of the game-winning drive against USC, only to come up short. Locker completed four consecutive passes, the Huskies crossed midfield, and UW was only about 15 yards from getting in position for another game-winning field goal when Locker’s final pass attempt was batted from intended receiver Jermaine Kearse and into the arms of UCLA safety Rahim Moore with 54 seconds left.
“Jermaine had made plays all day, and when he was in one-on-one situations,” Locker said Monday, two days after the 24-23 loss at UCLA, “”I felt confident going to him, and I knew he was confident going up to get the ball. I didn’t throw it as well as I would have liked to.”
Said Sarkisian of Saturday’s final offensive possession: “It’s unfortunate the game ended the way it did because I think he was having another one of those magical drives that we might have went down and won the game again on a late field goal.”
Both Sarkisian and Locker are somewhat baffled as to why the Huskies have been unable to close strong in close games as of late.
“It’s difficult to lose games when you know that if one or two plays go differently, throughout the course of a game, you could have come out on the other end” of the final result, Locker said. “So it’s hard. But I also think it’s nice to have the opportunity and be that close. It’s nice to be in a football game and have a chance to win with the ball in your hands with a minute to go. It’s hard, but were growing and going in the right direction.”
During the 0-12 campaign that was the 2008 season, the Huskies really only had two games that came down to the wire.
Locker scrambled in for a touchdown with two second left in a Week 2 game against BYU, but a missed extra point left UW on the wrong end of a 28-27 decision.
Eleven weeks later, in an Apple Cup that pitted two of the nation’s worst teams, the Huskies’ kicking game failed them again in a double-overtime loss at Washington State.
This year, UW has already had six games decided by eight points or less. So despite the late losses, the Huskies have made some progress in terms of growing into a competitor.
“I’m proud of our guys, and I’m proud of how far we’ve come,” Sarkisian said. “In a perfect world, sure, I’d love to have a few more wins. I’d love to have a few more plays back, a few more decisions back on my part. But we don’t get to do that.
“The key is that we learn from them, we grow and we keep pushing forward.”
Youth is the most obvious explanation for the Huskies’ struggles late in games, and that’s something that only time will cure.
“All in all, we’re getting better,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got a great opportunity (this Saturday) to go down to Corvallis and play a very good Oregon State football team. … We’ll go play, and we’ll play hard, and it’ll probably go down to the fourth quarter again.
“And the key is for us to go out and execute in the fourth quarter when the game’s on the line.”