It’s the biggest game of Steve Sarkisian’s young career. Again.
A coach hired on potential has a chance to show he can make good on Washington’s foresight. Again.
And if Sark can’t coach up to the moment, many will doubt his ability to advance the Washington football team past mediocrity.
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It seems like Sarkisian has a couple of seminal moments a year, which defies the notion of a seminal moment. What is this, the eighth time we’ve dubbed a contest the Most Important Game of his Career?
It goes to show how antsy people are to see the Huskies return to greatness. And it goes to show that Sarkisian, despite his admirable ability to persevere during a long rebuilding process, still has not fulfilled the promise of his hiring five years ago.
Sarkisian often keeps things in perspective by saying, “One game doesn’t define our season.” It has been an absolute truth during his Washington tenure, as the Huskies have alternated between signature victories and disheartening losses. You can never count out a Sarkisian team, and you can never be overconfident about a Sarkisian team. You’re always on the edge, swaying, unsure what will happen.
That would make for a great television drama, but if you want a proud football program to rise again, it induces headaches. But you can only stay on the edge for so long, and that’s why we’re here, in mid-November of Year 5 of the Sark era, anticipating that Friday night’s game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl will become a definitive statement on whether Sarkisian can bring the Huskies all the way back.
This time, the judgment is real.
In all seriousness, this game is the beginning of the judgment. The final four games — we’re already assuming a bowl since the 6-3 Huskies are eligible — will provide undeniable evidence of where the Huskies stand. But when we look back at the 2013 season, this UCLA game will mean the most to the perception of Sarkisian’s program.
It will mean the most because the No. 13 Bruins represent the last chance for the Huskies to beat a ranked team in the regular season. Last year, the Huskies lived by the motto “Take the next step,” but, while they beat two top-10 teams in 2012, they lost their final two games and finished 7-6 for the third straight season.
The Huskies are in a similar late-season position again. But they can’t just win eight or nine games the soft way. They need a victory that resonates. UCLA provides that opportunity.
This game will mean the most because Sarkisian has beaten only one ranked team on the road, a last-second victory over a Lane Kiffin-coached USC in 2010. The Huskies are 7-19 on the road in the Sarkisian era, and 11 of those losses have been by 17 points or more. That includes a 53-24 embarrassment at Arizona State this season — a woeful effort that has left an otherwise good season bittersweet. A win at the Rose Bowl would change the conversation about the Huskies’ road woes.
This game will mean the most because it pits Sarkisian against UCLA coach Jim Mora, a former Husky and favorite son. Some Washington fans still obsess over Mora. Even though he endorsed Sark as “the right guy” for the Huskies earlier this week, Sarkisian needs to beat Mora.
And this game will mean the most because Sarkisian doesn’t deny its importance. He has talked openly about the finish to this season for weeks.
“This month is about the next step, quite honestly,” he said. “We think we have a great opportunity to close out the season the way we’re capable of doing it, and this is the next game on the schedule to make that happen.”
Sarkisian has a 32-28 record at Washington. He did an amazing thing inheriting an 0-12 program in 2008, not only taking it to a bowl game in Year 2 but pulling off an emphatic Holiday Bowl victory over a Nebraska team that had beaten the Huskies 56-21 earlier in the 2010 season. But the past two-plus seasons have shown how difficult it can be to rise in relevance. Sarkisian has performed like the classic first-time head coach learning on the job.
The demand to be better consistently is growing louder, however. Sarkisian’s teams have toyed with greatness and succumbed to mediocrity for too long. The Huskies can announce that they’re ready to break free Friday night.
And if they don’t, well, Sarkisian is starting to run low on false Most Important Game of his Career opportunities.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer