Steve Sarkisian gets almost dreamy when he rhapsodizes about the beauty and precision of the Huskies’ up-tempo offense at its optimal execution.
“It makes you defend, really, six players every play,’’ he says, emphasizing those words as if it was a description of nirvana, which for an offensive-minded football coach is pretty much the case.
Three games in, Sarkisian’s significant restructuring of the Husky attack has worked about as well as he could have hoped. Washington ranks third in the nation with 639 yards per game, albeit against some less-than-elite defenses. The Huskies have enough big-play threats to keep defensive coordinators up at night, and a growing mastery of the concepts and reads to make it all hum.
If you want to trace the roots of Sarkisian’s motivation for such a profound change, all you need to do is go back to Oct. 20, 2012, when the Huskies were thumped 52-17 by Saturday’s opponent, the Arizona Wildcats, in Tucson.
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You’d probably have guessed that going up-tempo was a reaction to Oregon’s dominance, but Sarkisian said it was as much the debacle in the desert that swayed him.
It was, by most measures, one of the lowest moments of the Sarkisian regime, a third consecutive conference defeat — following a seemingly galvanizing victory over No. 8 Stanford — to drop the Huskies to 3-4.
Two games after also giving up 52 points to Oregon, the Huskies were completely dominated by Arizona’s frenetic no-huddle spread offense. Quarterback Matt Scott threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns, and Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 172 yards.
“I felt like Arizona’s tempo got us,’’ Sarkisian said Monday. “This is part of the reason we’re doing what we’re doing offensively is to prepare for this game, so that when teams go to this up-tempo style against us, we don’t become uncomfortable on defense. We remain comfortable.”
The Huskies, of course, aren’t the only one who joined the up-tempo revolution. As Sarkisian noted, it’s the norm now, and you’d better be prepared to defend it or you can get steamrolled. The beauty of running the attack yourself is that your defense gets a daily indoctrination in the nuances of the offense — as well as a lesson in the conditioning that is absolutely essential to control it.
Re-living that nightmare night, Sarkisian said with a laugh, “We thought we had a really good plan … They got going and we really couldn’t stop them. It felt like the field was slanted. It was 31-17 at halftime. We came out, turned the ball over to start the second half, and bang, they scored again — and again and again.
“That’s what happens in this style of offense. This is part of the reason we went to this style of offense. Obviously, these guys, and how fast Oregon goes, you have to be comfortable in that environment or it can get going that way.”
Something else significant happened that night, you might recall. Washington’s offense sputtered, and during the third quarter in Tucson, Sarkisian could be seen having a long talk on the sidelines with quarterback Keith Price, who threw two interceptions, lost a critical fumble, and was sacked four times.
Sarkisian would say later he was imploring Price to trust him and his play-calling.
“I just want him to believe me,’’ he would tell reporters. “I want him to take the information and the things I’m giving him and trust me that what I’m telling him is the truth.”
Flash-forward nearly a year, and Price is thriving in the new offense, the trust clearly having been re-established. Sarkisian said Price has played “relatively flawless” in the first three games, praising his accuracy, preparation and decision-making, while partially blaming himself for the call that led to an interception — the senior’s only one thus far — on his first pass of the season.
“When Coach Sark told me in the offseason we were going to the up-tempo style offense, I kind of laughed at him,’’ Price said. “I thought he was playing. He was serious. I was like, oh, snap. I liked it, liked the idea. I was down for whatever was going to help us win.’’
As if he needed one, Price got a reminder of just what went down in the desert last October. He said he sent a text to Arizona linebacker Marquis Flowers, a friend, telling him, “We’ve got you guys this week.’’
Said Price with a smile: “He sent me back a picture of him making me fumble.”
Rather than being offended by the photo of Flowers stripping him at a crucial juncture of the third quarter, Price said he thought it was a funny jab.
No one in the Husky program was amused during the rout last year against the Wildcats. But they hope that the curative steps that were at least partially set into motion that night give them the last laugh.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry