Rarely is facing a 17.5-point underdog an insightful reflection of a head coach’s progress — well, unless his team loses, of course.
But Washington’s visit to the Coliseum tonight is USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s first matchup of his current program against the program he oversaw for five years previously, from 2009 through 2013.
Sarkisian’s left behind a program at Washington that reached four consecutive bowl games and finished on the right side of .500 for the first time in a decade, when Rick Neuheisel did so from 1999 through 2002.
Successor Chris Petersen ran both streaks to five in 2014 when he inherited a talent-laden roster, featuring four 2015 NFL draft picks Sarkisian recruited.
Washington’s lineup is still heavy on Sarkisian recruits, all of whom face their former head coach for the first time. The last USC-Washington matchup was in 2012.
Petersen, who was on the other side of a similar scenario Week 1 against Boise State, reportedly took an interesting approach to preparing Sarkisian’s former players for seeing their old head coach.
Pretty obvious Huskies have been ‘coached’ to not talk about first game vs. Sark. Most players acting like they’ve never heard of him.
— Adam Jude (@A_Jude) October 1, 2015
The all-business approach is probably the best bet for a Washington team not expected to contend with USC. Despite the program’s positive trajectory upon Sarkisian’s departure, culminating in a nine-win 2013 season, the Huskies underachieved in Year 1 of the Petersen era.
Their 2015 campaign is off to a middling start: 2-2 with losses to Boise State and Cal, and a projected third tonight.
However, the adage says the most dangerous dog is a cornered dog. Washington proved that a few times in Sarkisian’s tenure, including twice as a heavy underdog against USC.
The Huskies stunned USC in Sarkisian’s first season, 16-13, when the Trojans sported a No. 3 ranking.
“At the time, USC had seven consecutive conference championships,” Sarkisian said of the 2009 win. He contributed to four as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. “When we beat them, they had just gone into Columbus, Ohio, the previous week and beaten Ohio State.”
The 2009 win reestablished Washington, the conference’s forerunner for much of the 1980s and 1990s, as a potential force in the then-Pac-10.
“It was really helpful one, for the morale of our team, the culture around football program, [and] for our fan base that we were able to go and compete that was perennially at the top of our conference.”
That win was more than just a measuring stick of Washington in 2009, but a building block for the Huskies’ future.
“It was big for recruiting,” Sarkisian explained. “We could go recruit kids and they could get a glimpse of what the future might hold, what kind of football we could play.”
Washington duplicated the feat in 2010, beating USC in the Coliseum, 32-31.
Sarkisian’s detractors derisively labeled him “Seven-Win Sark” after three straight 7-6 finishes from 2010 through 2012. How quickly the memories of seven straight sub-.500 seasons and an 0-12 finish fade.
His time there set the foundation for Washington to be a dangerous team. Last year’s stumbling blocks aside, Petersen is reshaping the program into his vision; that of a defensive-minded team with a complementary offense akin to that of Stanford.
The Huskies’ gradual move away from the more explosive style Sarkisian preferred makes tonight’s affair especially intriguing. Sarkisian may know the skill sets of many of the players he’ll see, but they’re taking on new roles.
And those roles fit a scheme that gave the Trojans fits their last time in the Coliseum, which was a 41-31 loss to Stanford.
USC may indeed be a heavy favorite, but Washington presents a real measuring stick for the program’s progress under Sarkisian — much in the same way USC was a measuring stick for his past Washington squads.