Fans storm the field after Washington beat Stanford in what was probably the high point of the season. - Otto Greule Jr
As we conclude our series of season grades for the 2012 Husky football team, we finish with a look at the season itself. How did it compare to expectations for year 4 of the Sark era?
Among Husky football fans, there are plenty of things that stir debate. They can range from standard football strategy - does Sark run the ball enough? - to things more trivial, such as: What song should play when the Huskies enter the field? What shades of purple and gold are best? Should all fans be standing the entire game?
But no topic inspires more passion and debate than this one - what are reasonable expectations for this program? I don't think any Husky fan denies that Sark had a rebuilding job on his hands. But there's a wide variety of opinions of just how bad was the state of the program, how quickly Sark should be able to rebuild, and what the ultimate standard should be for the program.
This year that debate was particularly strong. It was year 4 of the Sark era, and fans were anxious to see a step forward from two straight 7-6 seasons - after all, this was more Sark's team than ever, right? And with reviled former DC Nick Holt gone, replaced by rising star, improvement was certain - or was it?
Kirk: As I noted in my grades of the coaching staff, I think Sark was working against some strong negative factors this season. For a variety of reason, this was going to be a particularly young team, and most neutral observers pegged them for a 6-6 or 7-5 regular season. And that was before key injuries hit the program, felling Colin Porter, Deontae Cooper, Ha'oli Jamora, James Johnson, Jesse Callier, Erik Kohler, Colin Tanigawa & Lawrence Lagafuaina for the season. So with that in mind, the fact that Sark got this team to 7-6 again this season (and within shouting distance of 8-5 or 9-4) is not necessarily reason to think that the progress of the program under Sark has stalled.
But expectations are a funny thing - once the season gets underway, you get caught up in the moment and how the team looks from week to week. The opening win over San Diego State felt a bit close for comfort at the time, but as it turns out the Aztecs were a pretty good team this year. The loss at LSU was not unexpected, but the blowout nature of it was all too familiar and demoralizing. The shredding of FCS Portland State was expected, and while it was fun to see the Huskies romp, it didn't really prove much to most fans. The win over Stanford was cathartic, especially the physical, defensive nature of the win. The loss to Oregon brought us back to earth hard as we had to accept another blowout defeat at the hands of the Ducks. The loss to USC felt like a huge missed opportunity, and in hindsight it only looks worse with the way the Trojan season derailed. The way the Huskies were torched the following week at Arizona was excruciating - it was two roughly similar programs appearing to be headed in different directions. Then the Huskies rallied the season, knocking off a top-10 (at the time) Oregon State team, winning an ugly game on the road against a collapsing Cal, administering a convincing win over Utah at home and blowing out Colorado at home.
A 9-4 season seemed within reach - win the Apple Cup against a reeling Cougar team and win a bowl game, and the Huskies under Sark would make clear to everyone that things were on the upswing. But instead came an epic, "Coug-it" style collapse as the Huskies lost to WSU in overtime, and that was followed by a frustrating game against a mortal Boise State team as the Huskies couldn't hold a late 26-25 lead.
After some time to reflect and let the high emotions of the week to week of the season fade, I come back to the thought that the season was slightly more good than bad. While we may like to think of progress as having a linear progression, the reality is that there are many factors that go into how a team does in any particular year. It's my belief that Sark had some issues largely out of his control - the low number of 4th & 5th year players on the roster and the rash of injuries that happened to hit a significant percentage of key players - and that working against that negative current, the progress that did occur was mostly nullified in the win column.
With that said, things are still appearing to line up for 2013 to be a definite step forward, and there will be fewer reasons to excuse a season that doesn't show tangible progress in the win column.
Ryan Priest: 2012 can best be described as bittersweet for the Husky football program. The season was colored by joyous victories -- defeating eventual Rose Bowl-champion Stanford and a then-top-10 Oregon State squad -- as well as morale-sapping disappointments -- a ninth-consecutive loss to the archrival Oregon Ducks, and an absolute steamrolling by a talented-but-decidedly-mortal Arizona team. The Huskies continue to perform poorly on the road, going just 2-5 away from the confines of their temporary home at CenturyLink Field, where by contrast they won five of six games. It's most likely a sign of the team's youth and relative inexperience that, after falling behind, the Dawgs were rarely able to mount a serious comeback against their opponents. When they did fall behind, circumstances seemed to have a way of quickly snowballing out of control, with the clearest example of that probably being the Arizona game. In it, after the Huskies recovered a fumble on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Keith Price was sacked on the Huskies' first snap and promptly fumbled the ball back to the Cats. That wild two-play swing seemed to suck all the energy out of the Huskies, and they failed to mount a serious comeback for the remainder of the game. UW's players will have to dramatically improve their composure and learn to keep such turns of events from affecting them so viscerally if they are to reach the level of maturity is a necessary prerequisite to becoming an elite team.
That being said, the Dawgs also turned in a number of gritty performances that resulted in victories that virtually no one but themselves believed were possible. After losing their previous three games to Stanford by a combined score of 140-35, including the team's first home shutout since 1976 in 2010, Washington upset virtually every public prediction by notching a 17-13 win against a Cardinal team that was riding high after beating the then-No. 2-ranked USC Trojans the week prior. Perhaps most surprisingly, they did it by playing a brand of old school, smash-mouth football that hadn't been seen at Washington since the mid-1990s. To be sure, Stanford struggled mightily that night, especially in its passing game, but UW must be given credit for pulling out an unlikely win in perhaps its most exciting game since the Dawgs toppled then-No. 3 USC in Sarkisian's third game as a head coach in 2009.
Depending on UW's performance in the next several years, the 2012 season will be viewed in retrospect at best as a season in which the program lost some close games but continued to take collective steps forward, or at worst as a harbinger of Sark's inability to rise above the mediocrity of 7-6 seasons. The ingredients for success -- talented skill players, strong recruiting classes -- and failure -- consistent struggles on the offensive line, an inability to effectively counter spread offenses -- are both present in spades, and its up to Sark and his players (and in his fifth year, they truly are his players) to move the program in either direction.
Jack Follman: The season and the team overall was right down the middle for me and kind of like a mix of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. They beat everyone they should have beaten except Washington State but made up for it by beating someone they shouldn't have beaten, Stanford and then they won a toss-up game against Oregon State at home but lost one in the Las Vegas Bowl. It seemed like for everything good the Huskies did, they made up for it with something disappointing.
From a more team standpoint, their defense was a little bit better than average, but their offense was below average and their special teams atrocious. They had some young stars really emerge, but they also completely lacked almost any kind of upperclassman strength and it probably ended up keeping them from going 9-4 and cost them those two games at the end of the season which turned a long awaited "B" season into the now comfortable "C" season.