Huskies Watch Their Dreams Slip Away

Steve Sarkisian (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

PASADENA, Calif. - I'm not sure what was worse - the brownish, filmy haze that colored the San Gabriel Mountains, or the funk that has seemingly attached itself to the Washington Huskies. Defying all rhyme or reason, Washington took all of UCLA's charity and handed it right back to 'em as the Bruins were more than happy to tuck their one-point win away and leave the Rose Bowl laughing.

How could they not? They had just picked up their first Pac-10 win, and they did it by giving the ball away and hoping the other team imploded. They did.

Washington fans that decided to watch all the way until the injurious end probably saw the insult that was Rick Neuheisel's post-game rallying cry to the beleaguered UCLA fans, hoping beyond hope that their former boy-wonder quarterback has what it takes to get them back competing for Pac-10 championships. It was a bit saccharine, a bit over the top, and also exactly what you'd expect from Neuheisel, trying to put a brave face on a win over a team that hasn't had a road victory since November 3rd, 2007, and hadn't won in the Rose Bowl since he coached them to a post-season victory in 2001.

"It's a long journey, but I believe we are on the right course," Neuheisel would say afterward. He wasn't talking about Washington, and Washington Head Coach Steve Sarkisian has talked repeatedly about how the Huskies' journey back to pigskin respectability wouldn't take that long.

It's definitely not the stuff of Sarkisian to back off those kinds of statements, but as they wandered out of the Rose Bowl, Washington fans also had to be asking themselves - do they have the coach they need to get them back out of college football's abyss?

While you think about that for a minute, let's run down the shower of gifts bestowed upon Washington Saturday. The Bruins played the whole second half with their No. 3 quarterback - Kevin Craft - after the Huskies' Donald Butler knocked Kevin Prince out of the game with a hit that was penalized for helmet-to-helmet contact. Up to that point, Washington made Prince look like royalty, allowing the freshman signal-caller to shred them for 212 yards on 13-17 passing.

With no run game to speak of, Bruins' OC Norm Chow went Wildcat with Milton Knox. Like Marques Tuiasosopo as a true freshman, everyone in the Rose Bowl knew what was coming with Knox, yet he averaged five yards a carry anyway.

Washington's defense and special teams combined for five forced turnovers - three fumble recoveries and two interceptions - yet still lost the battle of total offensive plays (71-65) and possession (31:41 to 28:19). They did their normal bend-but-don't-break stuff, allowing UCLA's anemic pass offense, ninth in the Pac-10, to complete nearly 75 percent of their passes for 371 yards. On the road, that is going to happen. They haven't showed the killer instinct needed to put teams away when they've had the chance, and Saturday would prove to be no different.

Up 23-14 in the third quarter, prosperity got the better of the Huskies and they promptly gave away their lead the way they have all season long; shoddy special teams and choices that ended up backfiring. UCLA's Terrence Austin, who hadn't had a return longer than 21 yards all game long, ripped off a 59-yarder to give the Bruins excellent field position. Three plays later, Craft found a wide-open Austin in the UW end zone for a bobbled catch that appeared review-worthy at the very least.

While the referees got the extra point lined up, Sarkisian had a choice to make; call a timeout to give the review crew all the time they needed to make the appropriate decision? Or hold onto the timeout in a tight ballgame, knowing he'd probably need it at the end?

He did the latter. "The rule is, they are supposed to review every play," he said after the game. "If it's close at at all, it gets reviewed. I thought the official had a great view. The play didn't get reviewed.

"I'm not sure if he caught it or not."

There's only one way of finding that one out, coach.

But still, that's not what kept Washington from winning this game. As early as the very first play of the game, it was clear that UW running back Chris Polk was going to have a special day. He took a handoff, cut left, broke outside and scampered 34 yards into UCLA territory.

Then the Huskies proceeded to throw three straight incompletions and punted the ball away. Polk finished the game with 132 yards; he had 61 in the first quarter alone.

"I felt like Chris got a lot of carries," Sarkisian said after the game, admitting that he wasn't sure just how many carries Polk had on the day. "He banged his ribs up a bit, but was able to come back in and finish it off."

Polk had 15 carries, so basically he had nine yards in the bank every time he touched the ball, including one ill-advised pitch by UW quarterback Jake Locker that cost the Huskies seven yards. For all the days the Huskies have given to UCLA running backs like Theotis Brown, DeShaun Foster and Maurice Drew, it sure looked like Chris Polk was going to be able to give it right back to them when the Huskies needed a threatening ground game the most. After all, Locker was beat up and not 100 percent.

It could have been Polk's coming-out party. It ended up being a tease.

What is most disappointing is that Sarkisian continues to go away from his core philosophies when he needs to rely on them the most. With the ball at their own 11 yard line and down by one point, Locker methodically drove the Huskies to just past midfield. He had done it by using Polk in the run game and safe passes to the flat to keep the chains moving.

All they needed was three points, but Sark took his shot. With man coverage, Locker saw Jermaine Kearse and decided to go over the top - but UCLA's Rahim Moore came up with his eighth interception of the season, which leads the country.

Sark's Law: You want to finish the game with the ball in your hands on offense. By mixing in the run and the pass effectively, he had given his team a chance to kick a winning field goal. Kearse had a massive day, catching seven passes for 114 yards and two tightrope jobs for touchdowns. But it wasn't the time or the place to take the game out of your hands.

With everything that had happened - with all the good fortune and the corresponding bad breaks - with all the ebb and flow of a hotly contested road game in the Pac-10, the Huskies still had the game in their hands.

But as the scoreboard struck triple zeros, it crushed some big-time efforts from some Husky seniors: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim's sack and forced fumble; Donald Butler's team-high 13-tackles, including two for loss; Jason Wells' first start in over two years, which also included an interception. But when you get a total of six points out of five opponent miscues - and 16 points in five trips to the Bruins' red zone - no one is going to feel too sorry for you.

After his speech to the masses, Neuheisel disappeared into the darkness, taking Washington's slim bowl hopes with him. He's not giving them back either, as the Bruins are in their own fight for post-season eligibility.

"Somewhere here there's got to be a silver lining," Sarkisian would say afterward. All of these games and experiences that we've been in…we're going to grow from them. We're going to find it. I feel for our guys. When you get so close so many times and you just can't finish it…it's disappointing. It's disappointing for all of us."

Washington fans better hope that Sarkisian grows from these moments the most, because right now he has the most to lose.

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