September 4, 2011

Huskies' coaching raises questions

It took Desmond Trufant intercepting a pass in the end zone with 29 seconds left for the Washington Huskies to survive a thrilling season opener against the Eastern Washington Eagles.

That interception was the fourth turnover by the defending FCS national champions with two leading to 10 points by the Huskies.
After being pushed to the brink by a team that some thought didn't belong on the same field, is it time for the Huskies to push the panic button?

Is it possible that the strong finish to the 2010 season and the Holiday bowl season was an aberration and the Huskies are still a long way from restoring this program to past glory?

Head Coach Steve Sarkisian didn't appear too worried about his team after the close victory.

"At the end of the day we're happy to be 1-0," Sarkisian said.

The Huskies have a right be excited about their 1-0 start, it's the first time they've been able to say that under Sarkisian. But that excitement was tempered by 504 yards of total offense allowed by Eastern Washington, including 473 through the air.

It won't get any easier for the Huskies. Next week they host Hawaii, which may throw the ball just as much as Eastern (69 attemps) did. The Huskies secondary looked helpless on Saturday, but there may be reason to believe the Huskies shouldn't panic just yet.

Washington had several players see their first collegiate action on Saturday, including true freshman Kasen Williams, who caught a touchdown pass, but also dropped two catchable passes and fair caught a punt that he appeared to have room for a return.

"When you're playing a lot of young guys you're going to make a lot of young guy mistakes," Sarkisian said.

While the Huskies did play several young guys, in fact five players caught their first career pass; it wasn't the newcomers who almost cost the Huskies the football game.

Sarkisian and his staff were outcoached and out-schemed by Eastern Washington's Beau Baldwin and his assistants. If not for the mistakes by Eastern, the Huskies would have lost.

The Eagles' game plan coming in was clear: They were going to throw the ball all game long, and they did just that, with Bo Levi Mitchell attempting a career-record 69 passes.

It wasn't just throwing the ball that was the key. The Eagles used short quick passes by Mitchell. He was only sacked one time and the Washington pass rush was never even close to getting to him all game long.

Even though the Eagles weren't throwing down field, defensive coordinator Nick Holt continued to give the Eagles receivers plenty of cushion for short passes. No changes to the defensive scheme of the Huskies were made, leading to Eastern throwing for 473 yards, and they made it look easy.

After the Eagles passed short throughout the entire first half, logic suggested that Holt should have told his defensive backs to jam the opposing receivers and have the safeties come up and help for the short passes. He didn't change a thing.

In the end, Trufant made a game-saving play for the Huskies, but if he hadn't intercepted the pass, there is a decent chance the Eagles would have been able to score to take the lead, or at least tie with a field goal.

Offensively, the Huskies' scheme wasn't much better as they were dominating the line of scrimmage, running wild, yet Sarkisian continued to call passing plays.

In his post-game interview, Sarkisian did say he made a mistake calling a pass play to start the Huskies' drive following the interception by Garrett Gilliland, but throughout the game he continued to pass the ball instead of trying to wear down the smaller Eagle team.

Chris Polk, who was questionable coming into the day due to a knee injury, looked very impressive running for 128 yards on 23 carries, but it was the holes his offensive line gave him that really boosted the Washington running game.

Coming into the game, there was no doubt that the Huskies were the bigger, stronger team, especially their offensive line. With that advantage, it would seem that getting the running back the football throughout the game is key to tiring out the defense and setting up for a strong finish.

Sarkisian didn't have that in the game plan as Polk only got three first quarter carries. He gained 17 yards on those carries, but the Huskies offense didn't go anywhere in those drives.

At the end of the game, Eastern's defense wasn't tired and the Huskies couldn't enforce their will. Late in the fourth quarter, Washington was unable to gain a first down and in turn gave Eastern the football with a chance to win.

Washington's coaching staff can't take all of the blame for how close the game was on Saturday. The receivers have to make plays and the defensive backs needed to be more physical.

On a day where Washington forced four turnovers against a physically inferior opponent and only won the game by three points, the coaches have to take the blunt of the criticism.

It's the third year for this coaching staff and they have time to fix their mistakes, but the next two weeks will make it obvious if they have learned their lesson because there is no secret to what either of their next two opponents likes to do.

They should have known what was coming Saturday, but in the end they end up with a victory, and coach Sarkisian said it best.

"Tomorrow morning, half the teams in the country are going to wake up 0-1 and we happen to be on the other side of it," he said.

At the end of the day that is what matters. The Huskies got the win, but with 11 games left in the regular season, this team has some serious changes it needs to make if it expects to compete in what looks to be a very competitive Pac-12 Conference.

Follow UDubNation's Mitchell Larsen on Twitter @MLarsen_Rivals

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