UW's Sarkisian, USC's Kiffin spar again in rivalry
Matt Barkley didn't share the rest of the college football world's surprise when Washington coach Steve Sarkisian solemnly told a roomful of reporters this week that he would draft Barkley over Stanford superstar Andrew Luck.
That's because it sounded just like something Southern California coach Lane Kiffin might say about Sarkisian's players to stir the pot heading into the Huskies' attempt to beat No. 18 USC for the third straight time on Saturday.
''Of course he's going to say that,'' said Barkley, the quarterback who was recruited to USC by Sarkisian and Kiffin starting six years ago in the ninth grade. ''Kiff is the same way. You're always trying to (pump) up the other guys. I'm sure he respects me when it comes down to it, but we'll see what he says after the game.''
Although it's usually behind the scenes, both former Trojans assistant coaches never hesitate to throw a little spice into USC's simmering rivalry with the Huskies (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12), who beat the Trojans (7-2, 4-2) on last-second field goals in each of Sarkisian's first two meetings with his former employer. They have too much mutual respect to rip each other, but they're not above overpraise, or comic misdirection: After all, Sarkisian sent a joke text to Kiffin last year informing him former quarterback Jake Locker was out for their game with a mystery injury.
''That doesn't have anything to do with the game,'' Kiffin said this week, hiding his amusement with Sarkisian's gamesmanship behind a straight face. ''It's about our players playing well.''
It helps that Sarkisian and Kiffin are both succeeding. Washington has grown into an upper-tier, bowl-bound program in Sarkisian's three seasons, while bowl-banned USC has returned to the national rankings despite serious NCAA sanctions that won't let up for another three years.
''It's a healthy friendship and a healthy rivalry,'' Sarkisian said of Kiffin. ''A lot of the communication is over the phone - pregame, postgame-type stuff about the game and having an opportunity to watch the other guy play. We're still both the play-callers, so we can analyze it that way.''
Not every verbal jab is discounted in this very friendly rivalry, however. After Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt - yet another former Trojans assistant - said he'd rather face USC than Oregon, the Trojans printed up the quote and hung it throughout Heritage Hall.
Holt was paying respect to the Ducks' unorthodox offense, but the Trojans have been very successful this season even when defenses know what's coming. Barkley is coming off a school-record six touchdown passes against Colorado, and the junior has thrown 18 TD passes in the last five games - giving him 28 this season, tied for third in the FBS - while climbing up the national charts for pass efficiency and yardage.
Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee could post more spectacular numbers against Washington's porous pass defense, which has allowed a league-worst 283.1 yards passing per game. The Huskies' defense has held just one opponent under 21 points all season long, something the Trojans have done to six teams.
Yet anybody who saw the schools' last two meetings won't anticipate an easy game - particularly not with Erik Folk still kicking field goals for the Huskies.
Folk, who's from nearby Sherman Oaks, hit a 22-yard field goal with 3 seconds left in Sarkisian's victory over Pete Carroll's final USC team in 2009. Folk then made a 32-yarder at the gun last season at the Coliseum to beat the then-No. 18 Trojans.
For Sarkisian, who's also a Southern California native, choosing his favorite win over USC is only slightly easier than choosing his favorite child.
''The one last year was probably a bit more emotional, quite honestly,'' Sarkisian said. ''Being in Southern California in front of friends, family, in that same stadium that I had so many great moments with SC with as well as a couple of tough moments. I think (it was) a little more emotional last year, but both of them were special moments that I'll carry with me for a lifetime.''
Huskies quarterback Keith Price also is from the Los Angeles area, and his steady emergence will be a key to keeping up with Barkley's aerial show. Washington relies heavily on running back Chris Polk, who is seventh in the nation in rushing.
Although USC is a significant favorite, the Trojans who suffered through the last two losses to the Huskies don't see the rivalry on paper anymore. While Sarkisian and Kiffin proclaim nothing but mutual respect, another tight game could put this rivalry among the Pac-12's best for years to come.
''We wouldn't look at it as an upset if we beat them,'' USC cornerback Nickell Robey said. ''USC, we've been running the Pac-10 for a number of years. We're used to being the favorites here.''
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle contributed to this report.