Week 3: Sarkisian has UW back on track

BY foxsports • September 21, 2009

We learned a lot over the weekend about college football this season.

Washington, under new coach Steve Sarkisian, showed it is staging one of the most remarkable turnarounds in memory. How in the world does a team go from 0-12 to ... this?

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It's a creation that Dr. Frankenstein would be proud of — although maybe this team is more of the Mr. Hyde variety.

Whatever they are, they're not what they were. In some ways, they're younger. But in other ways, they're more experienced. They certainly play faster. But they are also bigger. Mostly, they're just better. And somehow, someway, they act like they know how to win football games. Even football games against the third-ranked team in the nation, the USC Trojans, which had averaged 40 points a game and a 24-point margin of victory against UW since 2002.

Yes, there have been improved teams, and surprising teams, and sometimes those circumstances have coincided to make them memorable teams. We don't forget ballclubs such as ...

  • Northwestern's 10-win Rose Bowl team of 1995 (from a 3-win 1994),
  • Wake Forest's Orange Bowl team of 2006 (from 4-7 the previous year to 11-3),
  • Illinois' 9-4 Rose Bowl team of 2007 that had been 2-10 a year earlier.

    But this Washington team is off the charts. This team, shall we say, Got Some, as Pearl Jam declares on a new album it is releasing today.

    They certainly got USC, in an event that was equal parts catharsis and football game. Just Breathe, Huskies.

    Even though it's still September, how easy it is to forget that the 35-year-old Sark jumped over from USC to take over a program that was a donut-and-a-dozen last year, statistically one of the very worst offenses in the country, with an even worse defense. A rebuild from the ground up.

    A competitive season-opening loss to LSU built some confidence, and a rout of lowly Idaho did the same while breaking a national-worst and Pac-10 record 15-game losing streak.

    Still, beating third-ranked USC was downright unimaginable. Last year, these guys lost to the Trojans, 56-0. For the past five years, only one team in the country (Duke) was worse than Washington's 12-47. In those five years, the Huskies won just six Pac-10 games.

    Enter The Fixer — Sark. Somehow, he immediately got the Huskies believing, and by late Saturday afternoon, there he was, leading the team hop on the sideline just before sending the offense out there to finish off the Troyboys with the drive for the game-winning field goal.

    Such a quick turnaround was unthinkable just a few weeks ago, but suddenly, Husky Stadium is the Force of Nature it was during the Don James era, and the Huskies are the hottest thing this side of Eddie Vedder and the boys.

    What's more, Sarkisian is lining up recruits like crazy, including Oaks Christian (Westwood, Calif.) quarterback Nick Montana, who Friday night outdueled fellow top 10 QB recruit, BYU-bound Jake Heaps in a showdown of West Coast prep powers a few miles east of Husky Stadium.

    They're doing it with hard hitting, takeaways, rugged third-down play on both sides of the ball, and a quarterback who is making the transition from the Tim Tebow of the West, to the Jake Locker of the nation. Locker is the guy who USC coach Pete Carroll calls the best player in the league and the best athlete he's ever seen at quarterback.

    After two years of fits and starts with injuries owing to defensive abuse and a basically flat improvement curve, Locker under Sarkisian is becoming the savior of the program he was touted as upon his arrival.

    And they don't look like they're going to go away anytime soon. Not many teams in the country can say they have played more quality quarters of football than has Washington so far this season, and no team in a decade has improved more so quickly. Said Locker of the team's biggest win since UW outlasted Miami, 34-29 in 2000 (their most recent Rose Bowl season): "We didn't play our best game."

    Only a few teams in major conferences have bounced back well from a winless season. In the past 13 years, eight teams in the power conferences have lost all of their games. Only one of those managed to immediately respond with a .500 record.

    That was Lou Holtz's South Carolina Gamecocks, which, after going 0-11 in 1999, beat 10th-ranked Georgia in their 2000 SEC opener and used that momentum to charge all the way to an 8-4 campaign that included a trip to the Outback Bowl.

    We learned Saturday that the power conferences don't have to worry about BYU (or Utah, or anybody else) gate-crashing the championship game, after all.

    All contenders from the BCS conferences should send Bobby Bowden a thank-you card after Florida State destroyed BYU, 54-28. What's more, Oregon breaking Utah's 16-game winning streak devalues the Mountain West enough that no team (not even TCU, which plays Clemson this week) will have a chance to rise all the way to No. 1 or 2 in the polls — even with a perfect record.

    We learned that Miami is a Top 10-quality team.

    The Hurricanes' dramatic, 38-34 season-opening over Florida State back on Labor Day was not artistic, but it was still impressive. And then Thursday night's decisive 33-17 victory over 14th-ranked Georgia Tech, coupled with FSU's rout at 7th-ranked BYU shows that Randy Shannon's team is for real.

    As good as two-time defending ACC champion Virginia Tech might become, the Hurricanes are more well rounded, and are now the team to beat in the league.

    We learned that USC's most valuable player is a true freshman.

    The confidence of Matt Barkley was sorely lacking in the Trojans' loss at Washington. We had been led to believe that Aaron Corp had been the No.1 quarterback before being injured in the preseason, which opened the door for Barkley, who showed substantial growth in the first two games — including the life-changing dramatic drive in Ohio Stadium.

    But without Barkley, who was nursing a sore shoulder from a hit at Ohio State, the Trojans' offense went comatose in Husky Stadium, with almost no downfield passes, and a stunning 0-for-10 third-down conversion rate.

    Significantly, with the score tied at 10 in the final seconds of the first half, and the Trojans facing third-and-1 in clear field goal range, Carroll couldn't bring himself to risk a pass that would have either gotten a first down or fallen incomplete — either way stopping the clock. Instead they ran the ball with 11 seconds remaining, and when Washington stuffed Stanley Havili for a loss, the clock expired before SC could snap for the field goal attempt. That lack of confidence in Corp was just one of seven times the Trojans got the ball into scoring position; they wound up with one TD, two field goals, and three turnovers.

    We learned that Terrelle Pryor can be pretty good . . . against Toledo.

    Pryor, who had a career-high 372 yards of total offense, including four TDs, got a chance to open up Ohio State's offense against overmatched Toledo, and he threw the ball better than ever. His 17-for-28 performance is sure to pay dividends as the Buckeyes desperately try to balance up their offense in time for Big Ten play.

    Ironically, if OSU is able to get on a roll and get back to the Rose Bowl, there's a very real chance that they wouldn't get a rematch with USC, after all, and not because they Trojans made it to the national championship game.

    We learned that Tennessee isn't as far away from catching up with Florida and SEC powers as we thought.

    We tend to buy into the notion that the Gators are THE elite team in college football (defending champs, 20 returning starters including Tim Tebow), but the Vols would not let Superman and his friends fly away.

    Sure, Florida deservedly won, but it was in The Swamp, it was the first time EVER that Tebow has not thrown a touchdown pass, and the 23-13 result was the fewest points the Gators have scored in their past 15 games against SEC opponents.

    Call coach Lane Kiffin "lame" or something worse, but one thing he did expertly was to get the college football nation to pay attention to his program. The Vols did lose, but they didn't flop, as many had hoped. Maybe next year ... but it's likely UT will get better, not worse, with the kind of recruits lining up to "sing Rocky Top all night long."

    We learned that California supersonic Jahvid Best really is the top candidate for the Heisman Trophy (so far).

    Jeez, through three games, he's got 412 yards and eight touchdowns (a 7.7-yard rushing average), all for a Top 10 team, which is an important factor. That's seven 100-yard games in a row, and now the Bears have to be considered an even chance to dethrone USC in the Pac-10.

    His candidacy is certainly bolstered by the injury to Sam Bradford (as well as the ridiculous stats that freshman Landry Jones is putting up in the Oklahoma offensive system in Bradford's absence — 600 yards, 9 TDs in two games), and less-than Heismanesque starts by Tebow and Colt McCoy. Sure, Tebow and McCoy are splendid, but the preposterous expectations seem to be weighing them down a bit.

    We learned that SEC offenses are getting it cranked up.

    While Florida and Tennessee staged a smash-mouth struggle, eight different SEC teams posted more than 30 points, some against quality opponents.

    We already knew all about Tim Tebow and Ole Miss star Jevan Snead, but they're not alone. Arkansas Ryan Mallett (408 yards, 5 TDs, no interceptions in losing to Georgia) and Auburn's Chris Todd (284 yards passing with 4 TDs in beating West Virginia) put up big numbers and looked scary doing it. Mallett leads the nation in passing efficiency.

    We learned that Nebraska wasn't ready to win a big game on the road.

    The Cornhuskers played well at Virginia Tech, particularly on defense, but when the offense and defense each had a chance to put the game away, Bo Pelini's seemingly improved crew went 0-for-2 in the clutch.

    Nebraska took over in Virginia Tech territory with 2:07 remaining leading by six points, but they managed just nine yards on three runs and three Hokies timeouts. That took only 23 seconds, and so Pelini decided a fourth-and-1 at the 37 was not to be trifled with. He punted the ball away, showing no confidence in his offense, and ... well, not enough confidence in his defense. A 1-yard run (admittedly against a tough Tech defense) would have ended the game and a failure still would have left Tech 63 yards away from a win.

    A punt left the Hokies at their own 12, but an 81-yard pass from Tyrod Taylor to Danny Coale set up Taylor's game-winning 11-yard pass to Dyrell Roberts. Even though he would have been criticized had a fourth-and-1 play come up short, Pelini needed to give his team a chance to put the game away, rather than find a way to lose.

    We learned that Cincinnati is ready to defend its Big East championship, as evidenced by the way the visiting Bearcats handled Oregon State.

    Quarterback Tony Pike, who is rising up the draft charts, passed for 332 yards, as Cincinnati scored the Big East's most impressive win of the season so far.

    Syracuse's wild victory over Northwestern, UConn's nice win over Baylor, and Cincinnati's solid victory were the league's first three wins over teams from the BCS power conferences (3-5 now in those matchups).

    We learned that Notre Dame isn't about to give up on the season, despite losing star receiver Michael Floyd.

    And now with their season off to the much hoped-for 2-1 start, the schedule puts them in position to cash in a 9-3 season. Interestingly, their Oct. 17 game against USC no longer looks like an automatic defeat ... but their Oct. 3 game against Washington no longer looks like an automatic victory. Both are in South Bend.

    Jimmy Clausen is showing the kind of toughness, leadership, and accuracy that winning teams need. For Charlie Weis, this might not be the end after all. We'll see.

    A glance ahead

    Thursday, Sept. 24

  • Mississippi at South Carolina: A chance to get a full view of Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead.

    Saturday, Sept. 26
  • North Carolina at Georgia Tech: Tar Heels take soft 3-0 mark into ACC play.
  • Southern Miss at Kansas: Eagles have been impressive ... and so have Jayhawks.
  • Indiana at Michigan: Big Ten play begins ... can Hoosiers hang in there?
  • South Florida at Florida State: Careful 'Noles, Bulls are 3-0, too, and this means a ton to them.
  • Arkansas at Alabama: Can QB Ryan Mallett move Hogs against super Tide D?
  • California at Oregon: Early showdown in Pac-10, especially with USC already behind.
  • TCU at Clemson: Horned Frogs provide stiff non-conference test for Tigers.
  • Miami at Virginia Tech: This is back to being the game of the year in Coastal Division.
  • Boise State at Bowling Green: Could be Boise's toughest remaining game.
  • Arizona State at Georgia: Sun Devils look for payback; Bulldogs look for momentum.
  • Iowa at Penn State: First real test for Nittany Lions.
  • Notre Dame at Purdue: Have Irish turned a corner? Which Purdue team will show up?
  • Washington at Stanford: Unlikely first-place showdown as Huskies hit road for first time.
  • Texas Tech at Houston: Cougars could be poised for BCS bid, but need a nice win.
  • Washington State at USC: Last-place teams square off — which one will avoid the Pac-10 cellar?

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