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November 27, 2011

Relax Washington fans, Huskies are still on track

As it turns out, all those superlatives spurred by Washington's giddy, too-good-to-be-true 6-2 start were just that - too good to be true.

No, Washington is not ready to contend for a conference championship. Blowout losses to Stanford, USC and Oregon (plus a surprising blowout loss to Oregon State) proved that.

But contrary to popular opinion, the problem with Washington is not defensive coordinator Nick Holt. The problem is youth, not scheme. And not coaching. Steve Sarkisian remains a Holt supporter for good reason. He considers Holt's entire career, not just the last four games.

And not just what UW did in Saturday's 38-21 win against Washington State. Sarkisian (and Holt) have these Huskies headed in the right direction.

Just three years removed from a woeful 0-12 season, UW is 7-5 and bowl-bound for the second straight year. Winners again.

"We're getting better," Sarkisian said. "There are games and weeks where it doesn't appear that way. But it's been an amazing process. There's still a lot of work to do. But I feel the future is very bright. I don't feel in any means that we're going in the wrong direction. We just to have to keep fighting for that consistency factor."

UW was certainly searching for that "consistency factor" against WSU. Washington's 14-0 slipped to a 14-14 tie with back-to-back 16-yard touchdown passes by Marshall Lobbestael. A blowout turned into a nail biter.

After gaining one yard in total offense (minus 14 yards rushing, 15 yards passing) in their first two possessions, the Cougars scored twice in the second quarter on drives of 80 and 66 yards.

Then in the fourth quarter, Washington suddenly rediscovered its defense, shutting down Lobbestael and the Cougars to pull out Sarkisian's third straight win against his cross-state rival.

"It's been a long month," Sarkisian said. "Not to take anything away from the Cougars, but I felt our kids deserved it. They've worked so hard. I couldn't be more proud of our seniors. For them to go out the way they went out. The way their careers started to now being a 7-5 football team and going to their second consecutive bowl. Those guys have been the catalyst for this football team. It was a fitting way to go out. I couldn't be more proud of them."

Against a Cougar team that's among the national leaders in passing, UW found a missing link to pass coverage - a pass rush. The Huskies, who came into the game with just 17 quarterback sacks, sacked Lobbestael seven times.

So there's hope behind UW's bumbling, hot-and-cold defense. Danny Shelton, a true freshman, made his first start Saturday. Andrew Hudson, another freshman, got his first start at linebacker. And both played well.

Holt has been criticized for not being aggressive enough, for not sending enough pressure on shotgun quarterbacks. That's not fair. He's called enough blitz packages, sent enough corners and linebackers. The reason the Huskies haven't rung up more quarterback sacks isn't because Holt hasn't called enough blitzes. It's because the players aren't making the plays.

"When we get our chances with pressure we have to get there," Sarkisian said.

Washington did just that against WSU. Sure, the Cougars offensive line had given up 32 sacks going into the game - 11th in the conference. UW had given up a conference-worst 33. On Saturday, the Huskies got the pass rush they needed to win.

So, do you put the blame of UW's defensive problems on coaching or on youth? Going into the Apple Cup, Washington was allowing 34.5 points a game, the second highest in school history. Only the 38.5 allowed by the 2008 team that finished 0-12 and led to the firing of Tyrone Willingham topped it.

Clearly, UW's defense can get better. But much of those deficiencies can be attributed to youth. Three freshmen and two sophomores started on defense Saturday for the Huskies.

On a day WSU coach Paul Wulff was fighting for his job, UW was fighting for respect. After losing four of its last five games, a win brought relief. And hope for improvement.

Offensively, with sophomore quarterback Keith Price tossing three TDs Saturday and breaking UW's single-season TD record, the prognosis is good for the Huskies. This is a team that can score. The Price-to-Kasen Williams (a freshman) and Price-to-Austin Seferian-Jenkins (another freshman) is reason alone to be optimistic.

"Keith Price is a stud," Sarkisian said. "He's a warrior, an amazing competitor. It was an amazing season for a young man for whom there were so many expectations of who's going to replace Jake (Locker) and all of that pressure."

With Price and with a young and improving defense, this is a team that's getting better. Not regressing.

UDubNation columnist Gail Wood may be reached at splinters5@reachone.com.


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