BY Steve Rudman 07:30AM 11/22/2013

For Steve Sarkisian, time to lower the flags

Steve Sarkisian’s Washington Huskies have been flagged 89 times, most among FBS schools. But this isn’t a one-year problem. It’s a pattern he allowed to develop.

Steve Sarkisian has a problem most foul. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

For a team that aspired to re-join the Pac-12 Conference elite this season, the idea of potential consignment to the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco Dec. 27 opposite BYU must come as a profound letdown to Steve Sarkisian and his Huskies, who can escape such a fate by beating Oregon State Saturday night in Corvallis and Washington State a week later at Husky Stadium.

Certainly it has unnerved many Husky fans, who blame Sarkisian for Washington’s inability to entirely shake off the Tyrone Willingham era. Howls reached a decibel level sufficient to make Sarkisian respond during his presser this week.

“For people to feel however they feel, I understand it,” Sarkisian said. “But believe me, if they could jump inside me, and in my heart and in my head, nobody feels more frustrated and worse about it than me.”

The Huskies started 4-0 and ranked No. 15 in The Associated Press poll, then dropped three in a row, all, as Sarkisian pointed out, to ranked opponents –at then-No. 5 Stanford, to then-No. 2 Oregon and to Arizona State, then unranked, currently 17th in the BCS poll.

After predictable drubbings of Cal and Colorado, the Huskies lost a winnable game at UCLA last Friday night, just as they lost a winnable game at Stanford when an apparent fourth-quarter reception by Kevin Smith was overturned following a replay review.

But there was another play in that game, much earlier, that also severely undercut the Huskies. After Stanford returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Washington started its first drive at the 11-yard line. Using a combination of Keith Price passes to Jaydon Mickens and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and short runs by Bishop Sankey, the Huskies faced 4th-and-1 at the Stanford 39 following a four-yard run by Sankey.

Sankey then ran three yards to the Stanford 32 for an apparent first down that positioned Washington to come away with at least a field goal. But a holding penalty wiped out the first down and scoring opportunity, forcing a punt. Washington lost, 31-28.

That was one of 89 penalties whistled against the Huskies this season, a total, as you know, that leads the nation. My read on Sarkisian, until this week, is that he has never taken seriously enough the flag avalanche, preferring to view the penalties as “overrated” and a natural by-product of playing aggressive football, mostly a good thing. But during his presser, Sarkisian took a different tack.

“When you play good teams and make mistakes, good teams capitalize on it,” he said. “We need to go out and play a good, clean game, and when we do, we’re pretty good. That’s the goal for Saturday night.”

It’s about time. Leading the nation in penalties (only 30 fewer than Oregon State and Washington State combined) is partly a coaching failure, and a major reason the Huskies are 7-20 under Sarkisian on the road and winless this season. But the problem goes deeper than this season.

Nineteen Husky teams (24 percent) since World War II have been penalized 700 or more yards in a season. These are those teams:

Year Coach Pen. Yds. W-L Skinny
2012 S. Sarkisian 969 7-6 108 penalties (18 vs. WSU) UW record
1971 Jim Owens 930 8-3 1st Rose Bowl team (1960) 531 yards
1998 Jim Lambright 863 6-6 93 penalties, second-most in UW history
1993 Jim Lambright 831 7-4 85 penalties ranks 7th in UW annals
2013 S. Sarkisian 793 6-4 Pace is 962, 2nd-worst in UW history
1974 Jim Owens 788 5-6 Flagged 73 times, also lost 23 fumbles
2011 S. Sarkisian 773 7-5 7th-most penalty yards in UW history
1997 Jim Lambright 772 8-4 Huskies flagged 86 times, fifth-most
2001 Rick Neuheisel 767 8-4 Incurred 92 total penalties, third most
1999 Rick Neuheisel 750 7-5 Lost Holiday Bowl to Kansas State
1991 Don James 749 12-0 UW so superior penalties didn’t matter
2003 Keith Gilbertson 748 6-6 Six wins but no bowls for Huskies
1995 Jim Lambright 746 7-4-1 First post-probation bowl (Sun) for UW
1964 Jim Owens 734 6-4 UW finished 3rd in conference race
1976 Don James 731 5-6 Only losing year James had at UW
2010 S. Sarkisian 731 7-6 Only 30 vs. Nebraska in Holiday Bowl
2000 Rick Neuheisel 715 11-1 Also lost 16 fumbles, but won Rose Bowl
1970 Jim Owens 707 6-4 First year of Sonny Sixkiller era
2009 S. Sarkisian 704 5-7 Increase of 230 penalty yards over ’08

As the chart shows, Sarkisian has coached five of the 19 — nearly a quarter, plus what will be the top two by the end of the season. Is it any wonder that, under Sarkisian, the Huskies have only one win over a ranked opponent on the road during his tenure (at No. 3 USC in 2010)?

While it’s true that the Pac-12 consistently features bad officiating (especially in basketball) — as recently as Monday, the conference apologized to UW for a penalty that wiped out a touchdown in its 41-31 loss at UCLA — it’s also a five-year pattern of Sarkisian teams making bonehead mistakes, especially in big games.

Sidebar: After Sarkisian publicly complained about that call, whistled against offensive lineman Dexter Charles, the Pac-12 called Sarkisian and issued an apology. Sarkisian made the apology public, and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott formally reprimanded Sarkisian for, first, knocking game officials and, second, for revealing the apology. The Pac-12 (Scott) wants it both ways: No criticism of its officials and no accountability when one of them errs. Good for Sark that he blew the whistle on these hypocrites.

“We’ve got to dig deep into our sports psychology to figure out why that’s occurring, and what’s going on, because we’re capable of so much more than what we’ve put out there, especially on the road,” Sarkisian said.

In Washington’s four conference losses, officials flagged the Huskies 34 times for 310 yards. This is the penalty breakdown: Hold=holding; FS=false start; PF=personal foul; 1B=illegal block; Mot=illegal motion; Grnd.=intentional grounding; Delay=delay of game; FM=face mask; PI=pass interference.

Date Opponent Hold FS PF IB Mot. Grnd. Delay FM PI
Oct. 5 Stanford 2 2 3 2 1 0 0 0 0
Oct. 12 Oregon 3 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
Oct. 19 Arizona St. 1 2 2 0 0 2 1 0 0
Nov. 15 UCLA 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 2 2

That’s an average of 8.5 penalties for 77.5 negative yards, which means Washington drew 38.2 percent of its season penalty total in those four losses. Washington’s performance against UCLA was the worst: the 11 penalties cost the Huskies 113 yards.

While it’s true that some Pac-12 teams incur an inordinate number of penalties — UCLA (88), Oregon (81) — the top three teams in the latest BCS poll, No. 1 Alabama (49), Florida State (53) and Ohio State (56), have in common the fact they not only have superior talent, but largely avoid self-destructive plays.

Washington can get away with 16 penalties for 130 yards when it plays Idaho State (Sept. 21), but even half that many will help grease a defeat if the Huskies are playing a top-tier team, especially on the road.

The 89 flags thrown at Washington have been characterized as “infuriating” and “maddening.” They are also bordering on the historic. The Huskies are on pace to draw the second-most penalties in school history, following 2012, when they drew the most. This has made Sarkisian the leader among Husky coaches since World War II in average penalty yards incurred per season.

Coach Tenure Years Record Penalties Yards Avg. Yards
Steve Sarkisian 2009-13 5 32-29 441 3,970 794.0
Jim Lambright 1993-98 6 44-25-1 492 4,537 756.2
Rick Neuheisel 1999-02 4 33-16 343 2,918 729.5
Keith Gilbertson 2003-04 2 7-16 168 1,373 686.5
Don James 1975-92 18 153-57-2 1,068 10,240 568.8
Tyrone Willingham 2005-08 4 11-37 265 2,152 538.0

Until Sarkisian solves the issue, the Huskies will remain Fight Hunger Bowl fodder.



  • RadioGuy

    Who WANTS to play in something called the Fight Hunger Bowl? Sheesh! Why in the world would the PAC 12 contract with something like that and not the Hawaii Bowl? I mean, seriously, who would rather spend a week in December in San Francisco than Honolulu? Or even El Paso?

    Go Dawgs…beat OSU! I can’t root for the Huskies in the Apple Cup, but I’d rather see them go to a bowl game where the sun actually shines and the temperature goes above 50 degrees.

    • art thiel

      Well, it would be a scrimmage in Honolulu, because there is no more bowl game there. And I’ve been to a bowl game in El Paso. Nice people, but . . .

      An SF location would draw many more fans from Seattle for an easy, quick trip. And college sports is first and foremost about three things: Money, money, and money.

      • RadioGuy

        The Hawaii Bowl lives…it’s just not one the PAC 12 is contracted for. The Mountain West and Conference USA will be sending teams this year (the U of Hawaii gets an automatic bid as the MWC team IF they qualify for a bowl but don’t get a BCS slot). The game is on December 13.

        And yes, college sports (in the FBS, anyway) is all about the Benjamins, and this game pays out $750K of them…less than the Las Vegas or Fight Hunger Bowls but same as the New Mexico Bowl.

  • Jamo57

    I’ve been a Sark supporter and am still in the camp of wanting to keep him. (Art’s take on the need to avoid churning another coach is the right one IMHO). I’m also usually reluctant to compare any coach to Don James and resist falling into the trap of living in the past by using the phrase, ‘that wouldn’t have happened under……’

    However when DJ passed, reflecting on the program’s success during his tenure was the natural thing to do and what really came to the forefront in my mind at the time is the perception that Sark doesn’t appear to be remotely as ‘detail-oriented’ as DJ was and that may be the biggest thing holding the program back. I’m not in the meetings, don’t attend practice, and only observe from afar, but the product on the field appears to support that perception.

    I hope somehow the program can really self-evaluate and self-correct in the off-season to eliminate some of these lapses and get the most out of the talent they are accumulating. Realizing, of course, that there is still a much higher percentage of freshmen and sophomores getting a lot of playing time for the Dawgs than ever would have been the case 20 years ago, I’m hoping they can play with greater discipline next year.

    Self-evaluating and self-correcting were also strengths of Coach James and the program.

    • steverudman

      What a wonderful, well-thought-out response.

  • jafabian

    Interesting that the ’91 and ’00 teams are on this list. Both teams enjoyed so much success that penalties meant little to them and both were very agressive on both sides of the ball. The Seahawks are going through something similar right now as well.

    Also interesting to see that only two of Coach James teams are listed, which shows how disciplined they were IMO.

  • 3 Lions

    They pay Sark over $2.5M/yr to coach at the UW. If we don’t see some improvement over the next couple games I think we need to take a hard look if this is the guy. Three of our wins are a joke. When was the last time we won a meaningful road game? (USC/Locker)
    We have developed a pattern of sloppy, inconsistent football for which the coach is accountable. I don’t care if Sark is frustrated, they need to play ‘clean’ football every week, get it fixed!. It might be cheaper to keep him but how long do we put up w watching the same mistakes?

  • oldfan

    I’ve lost my faith in Sark. He’s a .500 coach. When they lose, they lose big (and/or ugly). For every starling upset win or close “moral victory,” there’s a ridiculous loss to a team they should beat. (Stanford and WSU last year for example). The AD should be exploring other options at least.

  • ll9956

    I’m glad Steve wrote this article. I’m sure Sark is painfully aware of the problem with penalties, per his own words, but this will help to emphasize the importance of DOING SOMETHING about said problem.

  • jkl

    Now is not the time to be thinking about a coaching change for the Dawgs. Sark and staff have made positive strides in recruiting and have brought the program from the depths of embarrassment. The Pac 12 officiating is a known disaster no matter the sport. That one play in the UCLA game was the game changer that probably cost them a real shot at a road win. The same could be said for the Stanford game which the Huskies dominated in all aspects except the score. It would be interesting to see what the difference between road and home game penalties are for the visiting team throughout the Pac 12. My sense is the visiting teams are getting hammered by the officials. For the Pac 12 to come out and say sorry we screwed up again but don’t tell anybody just adds to the level of frustration the fans have with the Pac 12 no matter who your favorite team is. Penalties are a part of every game and the Huskies get more than they should and need to be held accountable for there actions. Victories are hard enough to come by especially on the road, Poor officiating can make it impossible. We all remember the 2005 Superbowl.