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.
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:
|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.
|Oct. 19||Arizona St.||1||2||2||0||0||2||1||0||0|
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.
Until Sarkisian solves the issue, the Huskies will remain Fight Hunger Bowl fodder.