BY Art Thiel 06:34PM 08/29/2011

Thiel: Huskies catch on about when to play whom

After years of big-boy pummelings in the non-conference schedule, Sarkisian defends the home opener against Eastern Washington.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian is selling the opener against Eastern Washington to more than just skeptical fans. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest file

Returning a year ago from college football exile to the mainstream, the Washington Huskies have begun to adopt the customs and practices of the gentry of which they were once part.

No, no stripper poles in the suites, nor trysts on yachts (as far as is known). That’s University of Miami graduate level stuff. What the Huskies have done is schedule easier games. Not easy games. For a team two seasons removed from 0-12, there are no such things as easy games.

But by opening the 2011 season at 4 p.m. Saturday at Husky Stadium against Eastern Washington, the UW, to borrow from horse racing, is stepping down in class. For the first time in modern history, they are playing a team from a classification now known as the Football Championship Series — where actual playoffs are held that determine champions on the field — formerly known as Division I-AA.

(As with the Pentagon, the NCAA enjoys re-marketing potentially controversial concepts to make things sound more palatable, such as naming a missile “the Peacekeeper.”)

For years, big programs have been scheduling little programs in order pay a much smaller gate guarantee, get an easy “W” and avoid having their clavicles snapped by “Road Warrior” outfits  full of wild eyes, chain mail and bludgeons.

In recent years, the Huskies found their nonconference schedules way too full of  LSU, Nebraska and Ohio State and not enough Popstand A&M and Krispy Kreme University. Fans always enjoy seeing the big boys, until about 3:30 Saturday afternoon when wails of ambulance sirens diminish the local enthusiasm.

So Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian was in no mood Monday to apologize for opening the season at Putt-Putt instead of Augusta National.

“I don’t think it’s disappointing,” he said. “I think it’s college football.”

To those who think the Huskies have wussed out, Sarkisian said that with a 12-game schedule that includes a Pac-12-mandated nine conference games — a national high — Washington is as entitled as any other school to design and catch a break.

“I think you’re seeing that trend occur more now where teams are willing to play FCS schools, not to guarantee a win per se, but just not to be so beat up,” he said. “You play a top-tier Big Ten team or Big 12 or SEC team, it may be not so much (the result alone), but  the factor of what (injuries) can do to your roster.”

Doesn’t have to be a non-conference dreadnought to devastate a program. In perhaps the dumbest scheduling move ever, the Huskies, bowing to the sport’s national master, television, opened the 2008 season in Eugene on Aug. 30. The predictable 44-10 thrashing by the Ducks set the tone for the horrific 0-12 season.  Not saying that the opener at Niketown was the main reason for the seasonal bagel, but where was Eastern Washington when the Huskies truly needed a muffin?

Ironically, four years later, as the Huskies  start at the ladies tees, Eastern turns into the defending national champion of the FCS, and a threat to win it again. Last season, Big Sky Conference champion Eastern went 13-2, including a 20-19 win over Delaware in the national title game in Frisco, TX. (Imagine playing for a football title, instead of voting on it. These I-AA kids think of the darndest things.)

Fact is, the Eagles are sufficiently capable of the upset that Sarkisian spent considerable time at his first seasonal presser Monday wondering aloud whether his team was as good as its three weeks of camp suggested it would be.

Asked what his over-riding question was about his team, he said, “Who is this team coming out of the tunnel,  thousands of people in the stands, when the lights are on . . . who are we? Are we the same team as Monday through Friday, or do we change, and I have to tweak that? Do some of our guys sit back because it’s game day?”

Absent a degree in psychology, I nevertheless will hazard a guess that the coach is working up a psyche job on his team that attempts to have his players properly geeked to avoid the emotional trap of a potential walkover.

He went on: “I don’t think we’ll ever talk that way, but you’ve seen it a lot of times with teams. Sometimes you put on the real uniform and it changes a bit. I believe it won’t occur, but until I actually get a chance to see it, it remains to be seen.”

So, the finger has been wagged.

The potential for a trap undoubtedly has the coaches nervous, no matter the positive vibe coming from the August camp. The plan is for the Huskies to emerge from the first month with a 3-1 mark — a home win Sept. 10 against another middling nonconference opponent, Hawaii, followed by a loss on the road to vengeful Nebraska, then a conference-opening win at home Sept. 24 against Cal.

So Sarkisian was in sales mode Monday, selling the opponent and opener to players as well as customers.

“I think the kids are really going to embrace the atmosphere,” he said,  “and we are hopeful our fans embrace the ball game as well.”

If not, a loss to Eastern would un-do a great deal of what happened last year, as well as cast doubt on young quarterback Keith Price. Not to mention Sarkisian.

That’s the hazard of attempting nourishment from a cupcake. Choke on it, and it never looks good in the obituary.


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