Sark, UW Have Much To Be Thankful For

Price and Sark (US PRESSWIRE)

With Thanksgiving upon us, most have time to reflect and give thanks - but college football coaches usually aren't afforded such luxuries, especially this time of year. As Steve Sarkisian and his staff prepare the Washington Huskies to face Washington State Friday in the 105th Apple Cup, Sark knew he couldn't bundle his thanks into a 10-second sound bite.

"I'm thankful for my family, obviously. This job, these players, this opportunity to be part of this University…a lot to be thankful for. It's longer than a one-sentence answer - that's for sure," he remarked Wednesday in his last media gathering before Friday's game. And of course he's right - it's much longer than one sentence.

It's an answer that's taken an entire season to produce, a season that has reached a somewhat expected result by taking a path absolutely no one anticipated - especially Sarkisian.

In August the Huskies looked to be solid offensively. They had to replace some pieces up front, but there was also enough veteran leadership to see the new players through. And even though Chris Polk had moved on to the NFL, Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey had a chance to reproduce Polk's considerable presence in the aggregate.

Defense and special teams were the real question marks. No one doubted the talent on hand, but what could new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox do with it? Was a spring and fall enough to rid the starting eleven of the habits that had formed during the Nick Holt years - habits that turned the Huskies into one of the most statistically inept defenses in the country? And UW was also in the position of having to replace two of the best specialists in recent memory in Erik Folk and Kiel Rasp with a junior college player (Travis Coons) and a true freshman (Korey Durkee).

So what happened? About anything you could imagine - and then some. The Huskies lost running backs, offensive linemen, defensive linemen - and their kicker also became their punter. Their star quarterback reverted to freshman form, which wasn't surprising because he didn't have a running back like Polk to relieve the pressure and the offensive line that was left didn't have what it took to keep the opposition at bay.

Then something pretty cool happened - they grew up before our eyes. The maligned offensive line with four new starters suddenly coalesced into one functioning unit and Bishop Sankey became a dominant run force - which in turn helped Keith Price find his mojo, as well as his smile. Coons solidified the specialists' role and the defense came alive under Wilcox's leadership, flowing to the ball and gang tackling like the great UW defenses of old. He took a defense ranked 98th in total yards a year ago to 29th today. That's just ridiculous.

Then they started winning. It wasn't pretty, but in my opinion winning football is always effective football. And the more effective they became, the more they solidified the identity of this Washington football team. In the span of a few games they went from a team that was supposed to be good on offense and searching on defense to just the opposite. And that's the beauty of it - as long as you win it doesn't matter how it gets done. There are no style points or winning games on paper.

"We're fortunate, we've got a tremendous defense right now, playing good on special teams, our offense is getting better…that's just the personality of this team that we have in 2012," Sarkisian said. "It's a tribute to the coaching staff to guide the team and then the leaders to respond and then the young players to mature. It's been impressive to watch this team fight through the adversity and then continue to get better and build and belief grow. I'm really proud of them. I'm really proud of this team."

Make no mistake - this isn't Sarkisian recreating the magic of 2010 when Washington had their backs up the wall and every game at the end of the season felt like a playoff game - but there are some similar components, like both teams having a solid defense and run game to support their offense.

And that's why the Huskies stand on the verge of doing something they haven't done since the 2000 Rose Bowl season - win five games in a row. During the 2000-2001 seasons UW was able to win 12 in a row - a remarkable achievement now given what the program has gone through since, and they don't appear to be slowing down.

If the 2012 season has taught us anything, it's not to assume things are going to fall a certain way. We can't assume the offense is going to bounce back under the senior Price next year just because he shows up to lead, just like we can't assume the defense takes another big leap forward. Like anything else in life, a little luck has to be thrown into the mix to remind everyone that football is indeed a game of inches and bounces, and even the most well-prepared teams can't overcome every variable that's thrown their way. But that won't stop Sarkisian from doing what he always does around this time of year; stop and give thanks to the pageantry that is college football.

"This is what college football is all about --- these rivalry games, these in-state games," he said. "End of season, weather's not great, households are split. That's what college football is all about and hopefully our entire team embraces it. This is what all the work we put in is for games like this so you better enjoy them.''

One thing is for sure - Sarkisian and the Washington Huskies will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner a lot more if they can wash it all down with their fourth-straight Apple Cup win over the Cougars.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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