The Alamo Bowl, Steve Sarkisian, and the bigger picture: What’s at stake for the Huskies?

The man - The Bark - The Legend

Will the Huskies win the Alamo Bowl?

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With yesterday being Christmas and all that could only really mean a couple things.

Probably means that all the college kids such as myself that have ventured home are stuffing their faces with actual home cooked meals.

When you dip into the sports realm, today signals the beginning of the lockout shortened NBA season. Of course, I’m from Seattle and I couldn’t care less about that particular sporting league.

Instead, today signals the fact that the Washington Huskies are four days away from hitting the field against Baylor in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Personally, this is most exciting since it’s the first Huskies game since the Eastern Washington opener that I’ll be able to watch outside of the Palouse. I just got back to the Seattle area after taking my first Semester at the University of Idaho… (and boy wouldn’t you be surprised at how hard it is to find a Husky friendly bar in the Palouse)

For the Washington football program itself it represents a couple different, significant, things. It’s the conclusion of year three with Steve Sarkisian – Now deeply entrenched in the Sark era. No turning back at this point.

It’s also fair to say that at this point it’s fair to say that the Honeymoon is over. The Huskies started off 5-1, jumped into the Associated Press top 25 and has us all creaming ourselves over the possibility of potentially seeing our football team go into Palo Alto, punch Stanford in the face and being able to proclaim that the Huskies were back.

Instead, the Cardinal did what every other top 25 team did to Washington and annihilated their defense dropping a sixty-five spot on the Huskies. The 65-21 loss(that’s a 44 point margin of defeat, or six touchdowns and a safety for those following at home) left the Huskies back out of the top 25 for good, and sent the humbled Dawgs limping towards a 2-4 finish on the season and a 7-5 overall record.

In those five losses, four to all Top 25 teams they played, the average margin of loss was just about three touchdowns. Of the teams Washington beat, only two achieved bowl eligibility – Cal and Utah.

Not exactly what Husky fans were zealously dreaming of after the first half of the season.

Which, leads to the ultimate question of the 2011 season: How content are Washington fans with the Alamo Bowl appearance and Steve Sarkisian altogether?  

This should be looked at on the surface first. The Alamo Bowl is the Pac-12’s second highest bowl affiliation behind the Rose, and a step up from the Holiday Bowl in which Washington participated in the year before.

Of course, the Huskies are being boosted in their bowl standing by both the fact that USC has been bowl ineligible the last two seasons, as well as the fact that Stanford has earned a BCS at large bid despite Oregon winning the Conference title the last two seasons. Both those teams the last two years would have bumped Washington down the bowl peg.

Regardless, the Huskies still would have participated in the post-season, which, in fact should be the true measure of football progress under Steve Sarkisian.

The Husky football team is entering the Alamo Bowl with 19 wins since Steve Sarkisian took hold of the program. And since going 3-7 in his first ten games, the Huskies are 16-11. The Huskies are also participating in their second consecutive bowl game for the first time since 2002. In comparison, Sark’s predecessors, Gilbertson and Willingham, both combined for only 18 victories during six seasons (2003-2008). Neither took Washington to a bowl game. (They both also only won two Apple Cups during that six year span. Sark has already won three.)

And, quite simply, for the third consecutive season the Huskies won more regular season games than it did the season before.

In this sense, progress is progress. And it’s progress that can be measured. The fact of the matter is the Husky program is better than it was before Sarkisian got here.

You think Sark is a little jacked? Yeah, so was I. Nebraska got whacked 19-7.

So, how much better can it get with Steve Sarkisian? Has there been enough progress in 2011 to indicate that this program is making enough steps to give us confidence that it will go where we want it to go?

Don’t mistake this piece as one that is second guessing the coaching staff as not the answer for the Huskies. But it’s simply a question that has to be asked after three years, after the promises that Sarkisian made to us about his program.

There is a sect of Husky fans content that bowl games are bowl games, at least temporarily. It’s the least we can be satisfied with after an 0-12 disaster.

But Steve Sarkisian is the one that three years ago stood at the Don James Center at Husky Stadium and explicitly talked about competing for Rose Bowl  championships as why he took this job in the first place. This is what we should hold Sarkisian accountable for when it comes to the ultimate destination for this program.

The Nick Holt equation

One part of Steve Sarkisian’s introductory press conference I remember quite fondly is him reminiscing of the only time he visited Husky Stadium as a player, and I would assume his first time to Montlake. 1996 with the BYU Cougars, when the Lambright led Dawgs put Sark on the turf over seven times. It was BYU’s only loss that season. This was the defense that Sarkisian wanted to bring back to the University of Washington – So he tapped USC Defensive Coordinator figurehead (Pete Carroll was the real DC at USC) Nick Holt to take autonomy of the Husky D.

The results have been pathetic, and if anything is going to hold the Washington program back from it’s potential, it’s this unit.

Statistically, the 2011 defense is the worst of any three years that Sark and Holt have been at Washington. It’s a unit that’s given up 426.3 yards per game, and 33.3 points per game. In their five losses in 2011, the Dawgs gave up 228 combined points. In Husky victories, the dawgs still gave up over 24 points a game.

It’s safe to say that the steady improvement of the program is highly correlated with Washington’s developing of a powerful offense. Washington scored 31 points per game, easily the best of the Sarkisian era. The Huskies were held under 20 only twice, in back to back weeks against Oregon and USC.

"You can't fire a crazy person. I'll fuckin' sue you"

The arguments of a lack of talent as why the defensive unit struggles is one that I don’t buy. Since coming to Washington, Holt has had multiple NFL players at his disposal. Mason Foster, Donald Butler, Daniel Teo’Nesheim. DT Alameda Ta’amu will get drafted, as will CB Desmond Trufant. S Nate Williams was Pac-10 All-Second team as well as LB Victor Aiyewa getting an honorable mention.

This is not to say Washington should have a dominant defense based on the talent available, but one that gets completely shoved around, especially at the line of scrimmage, in year three is completely unacceptable. The Huskies have sacked the opposing quarterback 24 times on the year….that’s two per game. Once per half. The defensive line was supposed to be the strength of the defense in 2011.

Is youth an excuse? Perhaps. Players on every level such as Danny Shelton on the line, John Timu in the line backing core and Sean Parker in the secondary are playing their first significant minutes of their college career. But I would go back to the fact that this is not acceptable still for a BCS Conference defense in their third year with the highest paid defensive coordinator (not including Stanford, USC) in the conference to have 98 other division I programs be able to say that they have statistically better defenses.

Why is the Alamo Bowl important?

It’s Washington’s last opportunity of 2011 to prove their ability to hang with a high level opponent. Baylor was 9-3 and ranked 12th in the final BCS rankings.

On paper, a Baylor team that ranked in the top 20 in passing yards, rushing yards and points per game should be able to absolutely annihilate a sad Husky defense. I expect nothing less. The merits and abilities of Robert Griffin III are well documented enough that I don’t have to hash them out here.

What’s getting over looked a bit is the fact that Baylor’s defense is statistically ranked worse than Washington’s. Would it be realistic to think that with Keith Price being as healthy as he’s been all year and with over a month to prepare that the Washington offense can hang with Baylor long enough to make it competitive?

Keith "Teeth" Price is a huge reason Washington won 7 games...and has a shot in this game.

They really have to if Sarkisian wants a collective vote of confidence from his fan base about the program moving forward. An embarrassing loss to Baylor and the Huskies are the same 7-6 they were last season, and it would be a safe guess to assume that this sixth loss would be the two-plus possession loss the others were. I guess what I’m saying is that a moral victory would be somewhat acceptable. These Huskies just can’t afford to get walked all over again.

Win or lose though this program will have to take a look in the mirror and evaluate some things as it moves forward. Still it is unarguable that Sark has made major improvements to the program, make no mistake about that. This should definitely not be a cry against what Sarkisian has accomplished with the program, considering what he inherited.

It’s a look in the mirror that should begin with the future of Nick Holt. I cannot fault Steve Sarkisian for choosing to bring assistants that he trusts and knows as a rookie head coach. But one without a solid resume of success, and without results, needs to be re-evaluated.

The one thing I respect about Steve Sarkisian is that he would be the first one to tell you that the Huskies aren’t where he expects them to be. It’s important to keep perspective on the progress of the program and remember where they came from. It’s okay to be content and satisfied now, and to be proud of where the kids in this program have gotten us right now. But for those who choose to be pessimistic, don’t confuse us that are content with seven wins in 2011 being content with the same in the near future. We’re content because there has been clear progress in the mean time. Sark likes to use the analogy of his program climbing a mountain, and that it takes time to scale that mountain to their ultimate goal. It’s a fair one. And it’s one that requires further progress for us to be able to continue to claim success within the program.

Then again, it’s Sark’s job to give us rhetoric about the job that he and his staff are doing to paint him and everybody else associated in a good light. But it’ll all go back to that December 2008 day in the Don James center when he promised Rose Bowls.

We’re not even close, yet. But that’s okay. It can start in the Alamo Dome on Thursday with a program that shows fight and doesn’t get walked all over.

Go Dawgs.



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