SEATTLE — Football 101 dictates that a team facing the top quarterback in the country would be wise to run a ball-control offense and try to keep the opposing star off the field.
University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t attending any Football 101 classes these days. In fact, he could probably teach a master’s program on the art of play calling.
The Huskies’ third-year coach is in such a groove with the play card as of late that he’s probably not planning on slowing down against Stanford and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Andrew Luck this Saturday afternoon.
“I want to score,” Sarkisian said with a chuckle when that game-plan was brought up to him Monday afternoon. “We didn’t score against them last year. So I think that’s the first task. … I also don’t want to lose the rhythm of this offense right now.”
The UW offense is in such a rhythm, due in large part to Sarkisian’s evolution as a play-caller, that it’s entirely within reason that the Huskies might actually be able to go toe-to-toe offensively with a Stanford team that has piled up 75 points and 894 yards in two previous meetings and returns the nation’s best quarterback in Luck.
After scoring 30 points in each of their first six games this season, the 22nd-ranked Huskies (5-1 overall, 3-0 in the Pacific-12 Conference) roll into Saturday’s game at Stanford with the kind of offensive rhythm needed to keep pace with Luck and the Cardinal offense.
It all starts with Sarkisian, who has really found his stride as a play-caller this season. His offense currently ranks 46th in the nation in yards per game (419.7) and 22nd in points per game (37.0). Over the past six quarters, UW has been able to move the ball at will.
“I think we’re in a pretty good rhythm,” Sarkisian said Monday when asked about his play-calling in recent weeks. “And I think we’ve been in a pretty good rhythm for a few weeks.”
Experience, raw athleticism and diversity at all of the Huskies’ skill positions have been big reasons for UW’s offensive success this season, but it’s been Sarkisian who has been able to bring it all together.
“He’s so smart, it’s crazy,” quarterback Keith Price, who has passed for 1,466 yards and 21 touchdowns, said of Sarkisian’s offensive mind. “I think he just dreams in plays or something. He comes up with some crazy stuff, but it works.”
Sarkisian made a name for himself as a keen offensive mind during his days as a USC assistant, but he took some outside heat in the later years for every play that came up short of perfection. He struggled at times to mold UW’s offense together while trying to mix in some zone-read option plays for quarterback Jake Locker during his first two seasons with the Huskies, and this year he has the offense playing as well as ever.
The only reason UW’s offense hasn’t put up record-threatening numbers in total offense (the 2002 team holds the 13-game best mark of 428.7 per game) is that the Huskies have generally been playing from ahead in nearly every game this season, thereby leading them to take their foot off the proverbial gas.
Sarkisian said part of this year’s success has been about the confidence the coaches have in an offense that is filled with experienced players at nearly every position but tight end and quarterback. It’s allowed him to call games without having to think twice, and it has also allowed Sarkisian to be more creative in the weeks leading up to each game.
“I think that’s one of our strengths,” Sarkisian said of the multitude of formations UW has used this season. “That’s something that’s unique to our brand of football. We believe in personnel groupings and shifts and motions and a lot of multiplicity in that aspect. Each week, we try to come up with a couple new wrinkles.”
In Saturday’s blowout win over Colorado, the Huskies employed a no-huddle offense for stretches in the first half and went to the Wildcat in the red zone for one play in the second quarter. They also used a couple of formations that featured wide receiver Devin Aguilar lining up in the backfield and going in motion. In a win over Utah two weeks earlier, Sarkisian used flanker Jermaine Kearse as a runner out of the backfield for a key third-down sweep.
“You don’t want to get out of rhythm, just to get out of it, so you can try to new things,” he said. “But you have to try to continually evolve. That’s what we are trying to on (game days).”
Sarkisian has called for one tailback (Chris Polk) to go deep for a pass over the middle — resulting in a 70-yard touchdown — and another (Jesse Callier) to throw a pass. He’s found a way to not only re-introduce the tight end into the offense but also give UW’s deep stable of receivers and running backs plenty of opportunities as well. Six different Huskies have at least 10 pass receptions this season, while 12 different offensive players have gotten into the end zone.
Things were working so well during the Colorado game on Saturday that Sarkisian later said he looked down at the play sheet and fully believed every play would work.
“We’re confident in any play that he calls,” Aguilar said. “We work on all aspects of the game, from any angle, so any play that he calls will be right depending on the situation of the game.”
The Huskies’ offense has been dead-on in recent weeks, and they hope that the rhythm keeps humming through this Saturday’s game at Stanford.
In a sense, the matchup with the Cardinal couldn’t come at a better time.
“I don’t know if Stanford ever comes at a great time. They’re pretty good,” Sarkisian said of that notion. “Sooner or later, you’ve got to play them all, and I feel like we’re performing at a pretty high level.
“That doesn’t mean you wave the magic wand and we’re going to go out and perform great on Saturday. We need to practice and prepare really well, and that’s what it takes to play well and perform well.”
Sarkisian played down the significance of UW’s recent inclusion in the top 25, saying that the No. 22 ranking was only “perception.” He added: “We came into the top 25, and that doesn’t have to be the reality if we don’t want it to be. We can perform better than that, or we can perform worse than that, given every Saturday.” … The Huskies came out of Saturday’s game pretty well on the health front. Sarkisian said that safety Taz Stevenson (knee) is the only player who has been ruled out of the Stanford game, while injuries to linebacker Garret Gilliland (stinger) and defensive tackle Danny Shelton (foot) will be monitored throughout the week.