They don’t act like spoiled kids who just moved into a fancy new palace. The Washington football players know better. They know that Husky Stadium, for all its $280 million of new perks and amenities, can’t provide the lifestyle change they want the most.
The Huskies are tired of being mediocre, tired of being second-guessed, tired of being 7-6. Most of all, they’re tired of being reminded of falling short at the end of last season. How close were the Huskies to a 9-4 record a year ago? They had an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Apple Cup but lost to Washington State in overtime. Then, in the Las Vegas Bowl, Boise State beat Washington 28-26 by making a field goal with 1:16 remaining.
For eight months, the Huskies have stewed, knowing that a handful of plays changed the complexion of their 2012 season. Keith Price has relived the late-game interceptions. The defense has relived missed assignments in critical situations. The offense has relived field-goal drives that should’ve been touchdowns. Few teams understand the thin lines that separate bad, good and great as well as these Huskies.
So while the focus has been on a renovated stadium, the Huskies have quietly been the angriest people ever to move into new digs.
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“Nah, we’re not over it,” coach Steve Sarkisian said before preseason camp opened. “We’re not over. We’re antsy. We’re pissed. We’re not over it, and we won’t be until we get to hit somebody else.”
That edge has been apparent throughout preseason camp. On the first day the Huskies were allowed to hit, they held one of their most physical practices of the Sarkisian era. During another intense practice two weeks ago, defensive tackle Danny Shelton knocked down Price, who was wearing a yellow, no-contact jersey, which angered Sarkisian. The coach threw his visor, fell on his back, ended practice abruptly and refused to let anyone talk to the media.
Yeah, it’s time for the Huskies to hit somebody else.
No. 19 Boise State serves as an ideal opponent Saturday. The Broncos are the last team Washington faced at the bitter conclusion to last season. The Huskies have an opportunity to make a clear statement about how much they’ve grown. The chips on their shoulders are noticeable, and they refer to them often, but is it just preseason chatter? Or will the final two games of 2012 create a significant culture change that propels the Huskies from mediocrity?
“We remember those bitter thoughts from last season,” safety Sean Parker said. “Just, as a team, not finishing — that’s what sticks out the most. Not playing every down, sometimes playing to the opponent’s level. It cost us. Until we play, I’m always going to keep this in the back of my head.”
Even if the Huskies turn failure into motivation and open the season with a victory Saturday, they should keep that bitterness with them. They’ve been the nice, happy team on the rise for four years now. Urgency is needed in Year 5 under Sarkisian. The roster is deeper, the standard is higher, the expectations are greater.
“This team we have is capable of winning the Pac-12 North title and competing with any team out there,” Parker said.
The Pac-12 North division just might be the toughest in college football this season. No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Stanford are true national-title contenders. No. 25 Oregon State always presents a great physical test. California is rebuilding under new coach Sonny Dykes, but the Bears still have decent talent, and Dykes’ offensive system will cause headaches for defenses. And Washington State is a rival that could be much improved in Year 2 under offensive mastermind Mike Leach.
Win the Pac-12 North? If the Huskies accomplished that, they wouldn’t just exceed expectations. They’d signal to the college football-loving world that they’re all the way back.
You haven’t heard a UW team speak like this — no qualifiers, no hedging, no eye-blinking — in a long time. I’m not sure the Huskies are that caliber of good, but they’re ready to move to the next level.
It’s not just about being angry, either. Sarkisian has been impressed with how his team has channeled that disappointment, too. He keeps marveling about the focus and maturity of this team.
“The one thing I’ve been impressed with, and I told the guys this, is when I’ve asked them to do something, they respond to it,” Sarkisian said. “It’s not like I have to pull teeth. When I’ve gone out and asked for more energy, I’ve gotten it. When I’ve asked for more physicality, I’ve gotten it. When I’ve asked our guys to stay off the ground, I’ve gotten it. When I’ve asked them to eliminate distractions and put laser focus on the tasks at hand, I’ve gotten it.
“And that really feels so different to me. And the leaders have helped the younger players understand that aspect of it, so I’ve been impressed by that.”
Yes, Sarkisian has been bullish about all his teams in late August. He’s the ultimate positive thinker. But this time, he’s not trying to sell you on the idea as much as he’s stating what he truly knows.
The Huskies are living a life of privilege at new Husky Stadium this season. Still, they’re bitter. They’re bitter about the past. It could make them better in the present.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org