Sarkisian explains his mistakes made in loss at Arizona State.
Steve Sarkisian became a human and a goat on the same night.
On the strangest Saturday of his exquisite introductory season, the wonder coach failed in a high-profile, late-game manner, lost because of it and provoked three days of second-guessing and criticizing, re-evaluation and introspection, heartache and outrage. As the mega-hangover subsides, there’s the 35-year-old Huskies football coach, looking determined as ever, talking candidly about his shortcomings and anticipating another opportunity to compete.
It brings us to a fitting, stabilizing conclusion to this ordeal. While Sarkisian and the Huskies deserve to be chided for their bumbling performance at the end of that 24-17 loss to Arizona State on Saturday, it’s also important to note that even as a mortal, Sarkisian is impressive.
He can’t make up for declining to call a run play on third-and-short with 28 seconds remaining in the game. He can’t make up for the defense’s generosity on Arizona State’s 50-yard touchdown pass in the closing seconds. He can’t stop the cruel detractors from joking that those “Bark for Sark” T-shirts should now read “Barf for Sark.”
What he did Monday, however, was provide closure with his honesty and humility.
“I thought I tried too hard at times,” Sarkisian said after three days of reflection.
Immediately after the game Saturday, he blamed himself. That’s admirable, but a lot of coaches do that. On Monday, he did something rarer. He explained himself.
Expounding about trying too hard, he first referenced Jake Locker’s red-zone interception in the second quarter. Sarkisian was upset with himself for calling another pass play right after Locker had an interception negated because of a penalty.
“We have been very aggressive in the red zone, and we will continue to be,” Sarkisian said. “But I felt at that time, when a quarterback throws an interception [which was negated], you can take some of the burden off him and possibly run the ball there and not try to force the issue.”
From there, Sarkisian went into his mistake at the end of the game. He got trapped between trying to run out the clock and staying aggressive. He remembers offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier reminding him, before that last offensive drive, of the importance for the Huskies not to give the ball back to Arizona State. In that scenario, at worst, the Huskies would’ve gone to overtime seemingly with momentum after rallying from a 17-7 deficit.
Sarkisian called run plays for Chris Polk on first and second down. He gained nine yards. On third-and-one, Sarkisian said he thought the Huskies had a chance to burn the Sun Devils defense and throw the ball to freshman wide receiver James Johnson. Didn’t work. The Huskies had to punt with 22 seconds left, the one thing they didn’t want to do.
“As I go back and look at it now, the reality of it is I should’ve ran the ball on third down to get a first down and then possibly take our shots to get downfield,” Sarkisian said. “I wish we could’ve gotten the first down on the second-down play. It would’ve made things a lot easier. But you learn from it. You go back to evaluate yourself as a football coach and as a team to say, ‘Man, stick to your guns. Do what you believe in, and get the first down so they don’t get the ball back.’ “
Of course, if the Huskies had played good defense for 13 seconds, the game would’ve been decided in overtime. Instead, they messed up while in three-deep coverage and allowed Chris McGaha to catch a 50-yard, game-winning touchdown pass.
In explaining that foul-up, Sarkisian chose to admit mistakes while protecting his defensive players and coaches. It was a smart move for a head coach who focuses on the offense and entrusts defensive coordinator Nick Holt with the other side of the ball. At the same time, Holt and his secondary can’t avoid the abuse. It comes with the disappointment.
When Washington president Mark Emmert and athletic director Scott Woodward targeted Sarkisian, they knew they were sacrificing experience for talent and youthful exuberance. They knew Sarkisian would endure some learning moments, but his positives — energy, recruiting, winning pedigree and unpolished coaching acumen — outweighed the fact that he’s green.
Put Sark’s young tenure in perspective, and you find this blunder pales in comparison to his successes. The Huskies have enjoyed a level of competitiveness that you hardly ever see from a team a season removed from having a doughnut in the win column. For that reason, Sarkisian has earned some understanding. Not a pass, but understanding.
So the wonder coach moves on, human after all. In some odd way, it’s reassuring. Sarkisian isn’t just a front-runner. He can handle being the goat, even if it makes you want to barf.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer