With just under 10 minutes to play in the most momentous upset of this young season, a kind of purple storm formed on the Washington Huskies' sideline last Saturday. Remarkably, the team that lost all 12 of its games last season had just taken a 13--10 lead over Pete Carroll's third-ranked USC Trojans. In the eye of that storm was Steve Sarkisian, the 35-year-old Carroll protégé and first-year Washington coach, who wanted to make sure his players appreciated the full import of that moment.
This is an article from the Sept. 28, 2009 issue
"I wanted the guys to know: This is where we're supposed to be," Sarkisian said on Sunday. "This is where we belong." The Huskies responded as one, hopping and woofing in a raucous display of bravado that has been, for the better part of this decade in the Pac-10, the province of USC.
Predictably, the Trojans came roaring back, driving to the Huskies' seven-yard line, at which point the players from the unit that ranked 110th in total defense last season ... stopped them cold, forcing a field goal. With the score knotted at 13 and 4:07 left, Washington began its final drive, and a measure of equilibrium was promptly restored to the college football universe. Quarterback Jake Locker was immediately sacked for a 12-yard loss by freshman defensive end Nick Perry. Yes, these were the sad-sack Huskies with whom we've become familiar.
Except they weren't. And aren't. The truth is, Washington wasn't as atrocious as its 0--12 record last season. The Huskies weren't any good, of course, but they might have notched a few W's had they not lost Locker—a dual-threat signal-caller—in Week 4, with a shattered right thumb, and their will to fight in Week 8, after it was announced that coach Ty Willingham would not be back in '09. Five days later USC routed the Huskies 56--0, and Washington hit bottom in a deeply depressing season.
Cutting the gloom with his infectious optimism, Sarkisian arrived on campus and promptly channeled Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black. Using his own figurative flashing Neuralizer, "I wiped the slate clean," he says. "I told 'em, 'I don't care what you did before. I don't care if you were kicked off the team, if you caught 60 balls the year before or if you're a five-star recruit. You're going to show us who you are, starting today.'"
He had another message for Locker: Stop trying to do everything yourself. Operating Willingham's spread, Locker had rushed for 986 yards in '07, and Sarkisian feared that he'd begun to think of himself as a running back. Having installed a pro-style system, Sark set about persuading the 6'3", 226-pound junior that he was an NFL-caliber passer.
The problem was, "when we got here," says Sarkisian, "he looked like a linebacker." To make his throwing motion more fluid, the coaches had Locker back off the weights. With a new regimen Locker lost "10 or 15 pounds," Sarkisian says.
"I'd always thought he was a great competitor," says Sark. "But he needs to learn that it makes his job easier when other guys make plays. I want Jake to be part of the Washington team, not the Washington team."
However, on third-and-15 with under four minutes left against USC, Sarkisian needed Locker to be a hero. He obliged with a perfectly thrown, 21-yard pass to sophomore wideout Jermaine Kearse, whose freelancing three snaps later was, if possible, more clutch. Forced to flee the pocket, Locker looked downfield. "Jermaine was on a streak route, but he saw me scrambling and spun out of it, and he found an open area," says Locker.
So focused on executing that 19-yard completion was Locker that he had no recollection of being walloped after releasing the ball. The roughing penalty moved the ball to the USC eight, and sophomore Erik Folk's 22-yard field goal gave Washington its most important victory in at least a decade. It validated athletic director Scott Woodward's hiring of Sarkisian, who may not have been his first choice, but who has proved to be an inspired pick nonetheless. (In full agreement were fans wearing the increasingly popular I BARK FOR SARK T-shirts.) It propelled the 2--1 Huskies back into the Top 25—at No. 24—for the first time since 2003. And it dredged up, for USC fans, an unwelcome feeling of déj√† vu.
This is precisely when the Trojans are most vulnerable: returning to conference play after a flashy win on the national stage—in this case against Ohio State—and forced to lower their sights to some plebeian Pac-10 foe. Since 2006 the Trojans have also been on the humbling end of comeuppances from Oregon State (twice), UCLA and Stanford. All, like Washington, were double-digit underdogs.
If Washington is much better than people thought, the converse may be true of USC. What ailed the Trojans (other than, for the second straight week, a profoundly anemic offense)? Possibly a spot of brain-drain. When Sarkisian left USC, he took along defensive coordinator Nick Holt, whose deft adjustments choked off the Trojans' rushing attack after USC had taken a 10--0 lead. Sarkisian also poached strength coach Ivan Lewis, director of football operations Dennis Slutak and director of player personnel Jared Blank. End result: The Huskies knew USC's tendencies as well as the Trojans did.
Also, it was quarterback Aaron Corp's misfortune to be making his first career start in one of the game's most deafening venues. A redshirt sophomore playing in place of freshman Matt Barkley, who'd bruised his right shoulder against the Buckeyes, Corp had been known for taking good care of the ball. But he repeatedly put it up for grabs against Washington before linebacker Donald Butler finally picked him off late in the third quarter.
That interception was one of three turnovers by the Trojans, who had no takeaways themselves—an embarrassment for players who spend so much time talking about holding on to the ball when they have it and taking it away when they don't. Thus did the visitors endure the double indignity of suffering a devastating blow to their national title hopes against a bunch of guys who then parroted their own familiar talking points:
"We put an emphasis on stripping the ball," explained Butler.
"Our team is all about the ball," added outside linebacker Mason Foster.
Asked if he and his buds had celebrated with extra gusto on Saturday night, Butler replied, "We kept it under control. Hopefully, this is the start of something big."