Last year ended with a bitter collapse and, after an encouraging start, a third straight seven-win season. For the first month or so of the off season, #FireSark was a regular sight on twitter, and a sizable chunk of the fan base opposed another year for Coach Sarkisian. I called those people unreasonable. While another year of mediocrity, as well as a total lack of consistency, was anything but progress, firing Sark seemed foolish. With the vast majority of the starters on both sides of the ball returning, with the coaching staff enhanced and tweaked, and of course with another high-level recruiting class, 2013 seemed to be the best possible year for Sarkisian to prove he could win big. Not Rose Bowl, nor BCS Championship, what with Stanford and Oregon sharing membership in the Pac-12 North, but Sark needed to show the fans something like nine or ten wins. Real progress.
After five games the team had only lost once, 31-28 to then-undefeated Stanford in Palo Alto. Fans were disappointed that sloppy special teams play and a ton of penalties contributed to defeat in a game that was winnable until the end, but 4-1 with a solid top-20 ranking looked like the beginning of solid progress. Then came the Oregon game, a decisive 45-24 loss that nevertheless stayed competitive until the 4th quarter. While no one has played Oregon quite as close, Price and his offensive line struggled all game long and the defense wore down and surrendered too many big plays.
Any loss to Oregon is a bitter pill for Husky fans to swallow, but 4-2 was always the most reasonably optimistic preseason projection. Even without any marquee, top-10 wins, the Huskies had taken care of everyone else, and in order to continue on the path towards double-digit progress, a road win at ASU was clearly necessary. Sark called the game a must win and the most important game of the year.
In a single game, and really, a single half, all progress made through the successful start was destroyed. If it sounds overly dramatic to pin so much significance on one game, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Last year, long before the two-game slide to end the season, Washington lost three games in a row. First they were blown out in Eugene, then they dropped a close one to then-11th ranked USC. That was followed by a demoralizing drubbing at Arizona. That blowout also followed two draining losses to high-level opponents, and it enraged the fan base nearly to the extent that this more recent loss in Tempe did.
Go back to 2011 and you’ll find another three-game losing streak that began with a blowout loss to the Ducks. 2010? For variety’s sake the three-game slide ended with the blowout to Oregon instead of beginning with it. All three seven-win seasons have featured mini-slides, usually involving a loss or two to a very difficult opponent that is followed up by a shockingly one-sided blowout to a mid-level foe.
2013 was supposed to be about clear progress, but instead it is exactly the same. Better assistants, a more talented roster, a brand-new stadium, and yet Sarkisian’s teams have always proven their mental weakness in games like the Arizona State loss and the 2012 Arizona loss before that. When the season hangs in the balance, Sark’s teams haven’t just failed, they have barely even shown up.
When Sarkisian became Washington’s head coach, and especially after he upset USC in his first year, the belief was that it was only a matter of time before he rebuilt the program, until Rose Bowls and maybe even more. Now, after a fourth repetition in the pattern of god awful losing streaks, does it really make any sense to sit here waiting patiently for Sarkisian to deliver?
For me, Saturday was the last nail in the coffin, the wake up call. It is technically possible for the Huskies to finish the regular season 5-0, win their mid-level bowl game, and reach that double-digit mark for wins. But to believe that Sarkisian will have this team mentally prepared for back-to-back wins at UCLA and at Oregon State borders on stupid. Even if the team does bounce back a bit and finishes say 4-2 or 5-1 with a bowl game win included, I would still spend the 2014 season waiting for the slide to begin, waiting for the team to lose its identity and its confidence at the worst possible moment.
Short of losing at UCLA and at Oregon State in a similarly embarrassing fashion to the loss this Saturday, I don’t see Sark getting the boot at the conclusion of this year. Most of the starters will return again in ’14, and the administration is likely to show Sark significantly more patience than the fanbase. But short of a miracle turnaround, I believe the best move is to thank Sark for bringing the program out of the dark depths of a few years ago and to find someone who is capable of harnessing the vast resources of this program to reach greater levels of success.