It has to be unsettling for Steve Sarkisian, Justin Wilcox, Bishop Sankey and everyone else who rocks the purple and gold. Each game day they wake up and hope that team shows up; the one that is resilient, tough-minded, physical and plays with a bit of nastiness. But inconsistencies throughout Washington’s 4-4 season have left all of the above questioning exactly which team would show up each week.
Eight games into the season, the personality of the 2012 Washington Huskies is yet to be defined.
“The personality is we’ve been schizophrenic,” said Wilcox, Washington’s defensive coordinator. “Consistency on our part has to improve. We have to continue to find the reasons why. But that’s something that’s shown up every week. Speaking from our side of the ball, we’ve played better against certain styles of teams. But at the end of the day it’s confidence in your technique and scheme and abilities.”
Saturday night at CenturyLink Field -- that team showed up; the one that punches first and asks questions later; the one that dictates and isn’t dictated to. And for the second time this year the Huskies knocked off a top-10 team by topping the No. 7 Oregon State Beavers 20-17 -- prompting another field-storming from the fan base. In fact, it was one month ago to the day that the Huskies stunned No. 8 Stanford 17-13.
But that game also marked the last time they had picked up a victory. A three-game skid followed, including losses to ranked Oregon and USC and blowout loss last week at Arizona. On the south side of .500 and needing to inspire his team, Sarkisian got back to some basics in practice last week with some physical hitting drills usually reserved for fall camp.
“We needed [a victory] for our own well-being,” he said. “It wasn’t so much about the record, it was for what’s inside of us. Pride is a powerful thing. You earn pride. It’s not given. We earned it tonight.”
Moving forward, slowly but surely, Sarkisian said his team’s identity is starting to take shape. And Saturday night was a big step forward.
“I don’t doubt our toughness,” he said. “What I’m figuring out week after week is the maturity level. Which of our young players is growing up each week? A guy like Jaydon Mickens made a couple of plays and started to grow up. I’ve seen Kendyl Taylor start to grow up. Each week I feel like we’re getting one more guy and one more guy. That’s all going to help shape our personality. Until then, we’re going to continue to be a blue-collar, lunch-pail, hard-hat kind of team. And that’s OK. You can win that way. It just makes it a little harder.”
And Saturday wasn’t easy. Sankey rushed for 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns against one of the top rushing defenses in the country while the defense intercepted Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion four times.
“I feel like we have our own personality,” Sankey said. “We’re continuing to develop that. This past week we had to get down to the nitty-gritty. We’re making strides each day, each week. This past week was a big week for us in getting back to the basics -- working hard and hitting. It paid off tonight.”
When points were at a premium, the Huskies held a 10-0 advantage at halftime following a 45-yard field goal from Travis Coons and a 1-yard touchdown run from Sankey. It was the first time this year that Oregon State (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) had been blanked in the first half.
“We couldn’t get anything going in the first half and we turned the ball over, so it was a two-fold problem,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “Then we moved the ball [in the second half] and we still turned it over.”
This was Mannion’s first game back since having minor knee surgery three weeks ago. And he didn’t look good, completing 18 of 34 passes for 221 yards with one touchdown and four picks. Prior to this game, he had four interceptions for the season.
“I think [turnovers] probably will be the thing we regret the most,” Riley said. “Having the ball with some opportunities and turning the ball back to them when we had scoring opportunities. As you can see in a game like that, even if one of those opportunities, if one or two would have turned into field goals, it makes a big difference.”
It didn't help, either, that Markus Wheaton was knocked out of the game after taking a hard hit in the second quarter. Fellow receiver Brandin Cooks turned in another sensational performance, catching nine balls for 123 yards with a score.
Mannion was eventually replaced in the fourth quarter by Cody Vaz -- who had led the Beavers to a pair of victories during Mannion’s rehabilitation. Vaz sparked the offense with a seven-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Connor Hamlett that tied the game at 17-17.
But the Huskies moved the ball to the Oregon State 12 and Coons converted a 30-yard field goal with 1:20 left in the game.
Washington’s offensive struggles also continued. The Huskies were outgained 427-293 in total yards. Quarterback Keith Price was 18-of-30 for 194 yards with an interception. But winning the turnover battle by a 4-to-1 margin helps.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know how pretty it was,” Sarkisian said. “We had some penalties and things; that’s a good football team, obviously, in Oregon State. I was proud of the character our guys possessed, their ability to preserve with the game could have really started swaying in Oregon State’s favor when they notched it up at 10-10. But our defense continually came up with stops.”
With four consecutive games coming up against unranked teams, it stands to reason that the Huskies could probably end the year on a five-game win streak.
But then again, no one really knows for sure.