By George Schroeder
September 18, 2009

He stumbled a bit, which was understandable. This was unfamiliar territory, and no one was exactly sure how to proceed.

"It all felt new, I guess," Paul Homer remembered. "But we loved it."

It didn't matter to the Huskies senior fullback or his teammates or anyone else that they forgot some of the words to the fight song, Bow Down to Washington. Or that they dumped a water cooler on their coach after beating, uh, Idaho.

Last Saturday's postgame scene was less surreal than the week before, when the Huskies walked off the field after losing to LSU, tying a Pac-10 record with their 15th straight loss -- and were congratulated by everyone they encountered for days afterward.

Yeah, the Washington Huskies have been "starving to win," as new coach Steve Sarkisian put it. And athletic director Scott Woodward. And president Mark Emmert. And just about anyone else trying to describe the good vibes emanating from the program that has long been asleep in Seattle.

If it all seems a bit much in light of a 1-1 start and a game with Pac-10 power USC this season, you haven't been paying attention. Washington went oh-for-2008, the biggest insult coming when the Huskies couldn't even beat rival Washington State, losing to the Cougars in the Apple Cup after an improbable late touchdown. Considering how bad Wazzu was, well ...MANDEL: USC ripe for upset against Washington

Bow down to Washington? More like Beatdowns for Washington. Going winless was the final humiliation for a program that began the decade among the nation's elite and owns 15 Pac-10 titles, but heading into this season had gone just 12-47 in the previous five years. The last four seasons, under the dour, inaccessible Tyrone Willingham, brought discouraging losses, and those losses marred the fan base with frustration -- or worse, apathy.

"The program was not just losing," Emmert said. "It was almost moribund."

Thus, the handshakes and back-slapping after playing close to LSU, and the Gatorade-dumping after beating Idaho (a game ball should go to the scheduler, too).

"They see glimmers of hope," Woodward said.

Heading into the USC game, much buzz surrounds Sarkisian vs. Pete Carroll -- protégé vs. mentor, and all that goes with it. Add Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who formerly occupied the same role at USC, and the connections run deep, and the compliments have been flowing both directions.

It's only Sarkisian's third game as head coach, but local columnists are already calling it a defining moment. That might be overblowing things a bit, considering the scenario in which Washington wins involves some reason for a USC letdown, and maybe a key injury or two (Ohio State? Matt Barkley's shoulder?). The unspoken goal, though, isn't really to upset USC, but to play competitively. More measurable progress.

There's an undercurrent of very cautious hope. Beating USC? Maybe not. But winning five games? Or six? Even going to a bowl? Emmert is getting feedback that's "extremely positive -- almost worrisomely." Given the immediate past, that's a big deal.

"There is a pulse," said Kim Grinolds, who runs the fan Web site "After Tyrone, there wasn't."

That's part of this, no doubt. Sarkisian, 35, has infused exuberance. His sunny confidence -- USC lite -- has been contagious. His decision to open practices to the public has energized the fans, especially after four years of closed access. But part of the enthusiasm is because Anyone But Tyrone has taken over.

Sarkisian -- "Sark," as he's affectionately and nearly universally known -- wasn't the first choice, though no one will say it. Fans and others coveted Seahawks coach Jim Mora Jr. Texas Tech's Mike Leach interviewed, and some figured the shores of Lake Washington would make an excellent place to dock a pirate ship.

But Woodward and Emmert said hiring Sarkisian was an easy decision after the interview.

"What was it? It was everything," Woodward said. "He got what the program was about. He knew what it would take to get back there. ... He is the antithesis of the past administration."

Sarkisian's arrival in Seattle and Lane Kiffin's in Knoxville represent interesting experiments: brash, young coaches spreading Carroll's be-happy gospel to once-proud programs in decline. But there might not be a bigger reclamation project than Washington football, considering the depths to which the program had sunk.

The players' collective psyche, according to Sarkisian, was "battered and bruised, emotionally, mentally, physically." Already, that no longer seems to be an issue.

"Everybody's pretty excited," Homer said. "There's a lot of energy. They're getting the best out of everybody."

On that subject, we shouldn't overlook the development of Jake Locker. The junior quarterback might not be a household name yet, and ESPN analyst Bob Davie got a little excited during the LSU game when he suggested that, if Locker were left-handed, wearing blue and orange and doing the Gator chomp, he'd be Tim Tebow. But the skill sets aren't dissimilar.

Locker is big, strong and fast. His development suffered a year ago when he missed most of the season with a broken thumb, but his potential is tantalizing.

"I don't think there is a better player than Jake Locker that we play," Carroll said. "I've seen that since he was a freshman. He's a guy that really carries the program."

Which brings us back to Sarkisian's job interview.

"The piece I liked most," Emmert said, "is he had a very good sense of Jake Locker. He didn't gush, but he had a game plan to turn Jake into a very good quarterback."

In the first two games, the Huskies have run USC's pro sets, but also plenty of four- and five-receiver sets from the Spread, the better to utilize Locker's potential as a running threat. The early returns have been promising; Locker has made good decisions, and passed well.

There's hope for the future, too. Sarkisian's enthusiasm has infected high school kids. The commitments are piling up, including one from quarterback Nick Montana, Joe's son, and Washington has climbed into the national recruiting rankings.

Yeah, there's reason for optimism -- even though the Huskies clearly have a long way to go.

Outplaying LSU in a loss and beating Idaho? That's fine. But USC is something else, entirely. The remainder of the schedule isn't conducive to a quick turnaround, either.

So while some are talking about going to a bowl game, more cautious fans remember the Huskies started 4-1 in 2006, but finished 5-7, started 2-0 in 2007, but finished 4-9, started ... well, no one wants to talk about last year; in fact, there's a semi-official edict in place prohibiting it.

Woodward's expectations for 2009 are simple: "For us to be better, and ... for every opponent to walk off the field and know they had a competitive battle."

Eventually, it's going to be about winning. But for now the battle is for respectability. In that arena, Sark's Huskies are winning.

"We're only two games into the season," Woodward said. "I don't want to declare victory yet. But I like what I see."

USC is coming to town, and barring the Trojans' annual letdown, Washington's winning streak will end at one. Could be, as they've done to so many other teams so many other times, the Trojans will puncture the aura. The good vibes will subside, skepticism will reemerge.

More likely, what we'll see late Saturday evening is the most energized fan base of a 1-2 team, anywhere.

"People are excited about what we can do," Homer said. "We are, too."

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