Alex: Well, aside from a win in the Apple Cup, an investigation into potential recruiting violations and a head-coaching change, the Huskies have had an uneventful month.
Before Sarkisian left Seattle for the bright lights of Los Angeles, the Huskies overcame the elusive seven-win mark with a win in the Apple Cup. The Husky defense played well and the offense produced just enough to hold off the Cougars. While we know that Keith Price was playing in his final game at Husky Stadium, we have yet to find out whether juniors Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Bishop Sankey have played their last game there.
The allegations against Tosh Lupoi seem serious on one hand, but on the other hand—due to the precedent of uneven enforcement on the part of the NCAA—it's hard to discern how harsh the consequences will be in the end. Additionally, it's hard to tell who will be punished if the NCAA does find that a violation occurred. They could punish Lupoi, Sarkisian, the UW football program, or any combination of the three. Since it seems that Petersen is not going to retain Lupoi on his coaching staff, hopefully his actions will not adversely affect future recruiting for the Huskies.
In the long term, the Huskies will benefit from the head-coaching change. Steve Sarkisian did a tremendous job of taking the program from 0–12 five years ago to 8–4 with a chance at 9 wins. In particular, the Huskies were able to recruit elite athletes—especially on the offensive side of the ball. Before his departure to USC, some questioned whether Sarkisian could bring the Huskies all the way back to compete for a national championship. We'll never know what Sarkisian could have accomplished had he stayed at Washington; however, he set the table for a coach that has actually led a team to multiple BCS bowl victories. Though I believe that Petersen can coach, I wonder how he will fare competing against other coaches for elite players.
What do you think the expectations should be for Chris Petersen's first recruiting class? What do you think Seferian-Jenkins and Bishop Sankey will ultimately decide about returning next year?
Ryan: Before I answer your question, I want to comment on one of your earlier points. Specifically, that "in the long term, the Huskies will benefit from the head coaching change."
Before I say anything else, I want to be clear that I think Chris Petersen has as great a shot as anyone imaginable of being successful at Washington. Certainly, you can't argue with major college football's career leader in win percentage—I don't care if you're playing the Little Sisters of the Poor each week, 92–12 is nothing to scoff at. Even more promising than that, though, is his track record in developing undervalued players into NFL-caliber players. One of the biggest knocks against Sarkisian and his staff was that they failed to develop the highly-touted recruits that entered the program, and that certainly doesn't seem to be the prevailing thought about how Petersen's staff will operate.
But while I'm optimistic about his chances to do well, I'm certainly not sold on the idea that we can take his success for granted. Certainly, the track record of similar coaches is against him—for every Urban Meyer, there are a dozen Dan Hawkins. He's never had to recruit the type of players that he'll need to win at a high level at Washington, nor has he had to play the grueling type of schedule that he will as a member of one of college football's toughest divisions. On the other hand, he hasn't had the prestige of the Washington program or the Pac-12 conference to recruit to, nor the appeal of an international city like Seattle. There's every reason to think that Petersen will be the next great Washington coach, but what's before him is a tough enough challenge that I'll have to see him do it before I can bring myself to jump onto the bandwagon.
As to your question about this year's recruiting class, I'm basically writing it off. Virtually the entire coaching staff has absconded to L.A., taking UW's best recruits like Jonathan Lockett with them. On top of that, the team's best remaining recruiter is currently the target of allegations of improper conduct, and Petersen still doesn't have his entire staff in place. In my mind, anyone they get to Washington is gravy, and while Washington will probably feel the pain of this class in four and five years, it won't affect them terribly in the short term as long as the program can minimize the number of players who decide to transfer in the wake of Sarkisian's exit.
And as much as I'd like to believe that ASJ and Sankey come back in 2014, I just don't see how it happens for both. Best case scenario for Washington fans is that Sankey thinks he can improve upon his third-round draft grade while earning his undergraduate degree and comes back for his fourth year; ASJ, on the other hand, has said all the right things about coming back, but I just don't see how you turn down a second-round grade with the chance to go for late first-round money.
Let's keep our eyes on this week's prize, though—what needs to happen today for Washington to come away with their first bowl win since 2010?
Alex: In the absence of Steve Sarkisian, the biggest concern heading into this game is play-calling on offense. While there were times this season that I disagreed with Sarkisian's calls, he has done a great job putting the offense in position to be successful for most of the season.
Throughout the season, offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau has worked with Sarkisian to develop a game plan for the offense. Kiesau should have no trouble coming up with an overall plan for the game. However, I am concerned about his ability to make calls during the game.
Calling a game is an art. It's an art that requires practice. Simulating game conditions to practice play-calling is difficult, or maybe even impossible. Kiesau has called plays in previous coaching stints; however, it has been a few years since he has been a team's primary play-caller. I expect that the Huskies will find success in their offensive script, which is usually about the first 10 plays; however, it remains to be seen how Kiesau handles the play-calling duties during the more pivotal moments in the game.
Ryan: I couldn't agree more with your assessment of Kiesau. I don't know who the players of the game are going to be, but Eric Kiesau's performance in calling plays for the Husky offense is likely to be the pivotal factor of the game.
On the defensive side of the ball, position coaches Keith Heyward and Peter Sirmon have bid Washington adieu, but the defense's chief architect in Justin Wilcox remains. Maybe someone with major college playing experience will dispute me on this, but it seems to me that at this point of the season, the presence of position coaches isn't of paramount importance, since the players have had an entire season to internalize their teachings. Much more important, I'd argue, is the continued presence of the play-caller, and Washington's defense will be unchanged in that regard by the continued presence of Justin Wilcox (despite reports that he's headed to USC as soon as Friday's game wraps up).
In that regard, the offense will be at a considerable disadvantage—for the first time since Keith Price took over as Washington's starting quarterback in 2011, Steve Sarkisian won't be calling plays. The best thing that Kiesau can do, it seems to me, is not try to reinvent the wheel. At this point, Washington's offensive identity—establishing the run via Bishop Sankey, then attacking the edges and downfield via screen and play-action passes, respectively—is well established, and trying to turn them into something that they haven't been all season will be flirting with disaster. Kiesau is a smart man, though, and I suspect that he knows exactly what he has to do with the nation's No. 8 offense is more (and more, and more) of the same.
Alright, put up or shut up—give me your prediction for Friday's outcome. Do Dawg fans go into the offseason giddy or crushed?
Alex: It is hard to tell how the Huskies will respond in this game. While there are reasons to believe that the Huskies will be distracted by off-the-field news, interim head coach Marques Tuiasosopo should have the players in the right mindset to a get a victory in a single game.
For one game—with a Husky Legend coaching and a future Husky Legend leading the offense in his last game—the Huskies should be able to focus enough and put together a game plan to defeat BYU.
In games where the Huskies have played well this season, they have leaned on the defense and running game. The game plan for this game should rely on that formula. The defense should be well versed in handling up-tempo offenses that like to run the ball. With the Cougar offense off the field, the Husky offense should be able to run the ball and use play-action to stretch the field. I expect to see big games on offense from the guys who may be playing their last game in purple and gold.
Ryan: With all due respect to BYU, this game will be about Washington's ability to ignore everything that's happened with regard to the program's leadership since the Apple Cup wrapped up Nov. 29.
Do the Dawgs come out with a chip on their shoulder, ready to prove to their former head coach that he made the wrong decision in abandoning them for a rival conference team? Are the seniors focused on ending their careers with a win, and providing an example of leadership for the younger players who no doubt feel jilted in losing the coaches who recruited them to the university in the first place?
Scott Woodward no doubt had those questions foremost on his mind when he named Marques Tuiasosopo his interim head coach, which in my estimation was an absolutely slam-dunk choice. Right now, the Husky players need someone who is fired up to help them reach success; someone who won't be fazed by Sarkisian's abrupt and awkward departure; someone who is passionate about elevating the Husky program, rather than himself. Tui, who is regarded as one of the most effective on-the-field leaders in program history, is the rare kind of man who bleeds purple and gold regardless of his future employment prospect, and will assuredly have a singular focus on coaching his team to a victory in his first career game as a head coach.
If I know anything about Washington's athletes, that focus will radiate to Keith Price, Sean Parker, James Johnson, Princeton Fuiamono and the other players who will be taking the field for the last time of their collegiate careers. Washington's players will be fueled by the emotion of their interim head coach and a desire to impress their new head coach, and while emotion alone isn't enough to deliver wins consistently, I suspect it will be enough to deliver one on Friday. Washington 31, BYU 27.