Thursday night’s USC vs. Washington game at the Coliseum has the potential of a media circus. It’s when Steve Sarkisian faces his former team for the first time, while going to toe to toe with Chris Petersen, who was widely considered a serious candidate for the Trojans’ coaching job before Sarkisian was hired.
Add it all together, and it’s a juicy matchup. It also pits USC’s highly efficient offense against a Husky defense had was ranked 22nd nationally in S&P+ last week.
Washington may be picked to finish in the bottom tier of the Pac-12, but they’re not a push over and will be a challenge for the Trojans.
Here’s a first look at the game that will be.
Sarkisian and staff face their old employer
Given the way that Sarkisian left Washington –hours after saying he wouldn’t– there’s likely to be a significant amount of attention on the storyline of him facing his former team this week. That’s expected.
On Saturday afternoon, Sarkisian got his first taste of the UW questions, like whether or not Thursday night’s game meant more than other games. He scoffed at the idea of it being an unusually important game, but spoke glowingly of his time as a Husky.
“I’ve got great memories from the University of Washington,” Sarkisian said. “I enjoyed it. We really felt like we took a program that was at the bottom of our conference and built them the right way.”
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
In five seasons at UW, Sarkisian took what was an 0-12 team to four straight bowl games. He amassed a 34-29 record, with some promising teams that never quite got over the hump.
That’s grounds for criticism out of Seattle, and a hurdle he’s still trying to accomplish at USC. But despite the angst that Washington fans may feel towards him, he’s not feeling it back.
“The memories kick up a little bit,” Sarkisian said. “You don’t get the chance to follow them like you do, and you start looking at the tape and there’s a bunch of the players that you recruited. They’re playing hard, and I’m happy for them.”
That’s probably a familiar feeling, as he faced USC three times while coaching at Washington after being a longtime Trojan assistant. Sarkisian was 2-1 in those games, including beating No. 3 USC in just his third game as a head coach in 2009.
The Trojans will obviously be hoping for a similar result on Thursday night.
Sark and Petersen have met before
While it may be Sarkisian’s first game against Washington, it’s not his first against Chris Petersen. The two coaching staffs have met twice before, which oddly enough came in back to back games.
Boise State got the better of the Huskies in the first go around during the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl, winning 28-26 on a field goal with just over a minute to play. The following September, Washington got retribution with a 38-6 blowout in the re-opening of Husky Stadium.
What’s it mean? Not much. In 2013, Sarkisian had his best team at Washington, while Petersen was coaching his worst Boise State team. If you’re going to look at anything in regards to the two coaches, take their time at their respective schools.
Sarkisian has been 12-5 at USC, while both underachieving and then looking rather impressive at times. Petersen has a 10-8 record, and has been every bit as much of a mixed bag. Both deserve more time to truly judge.
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Huskies are solid defensively
Washington currently boasts the Pac-12’s most stingy rush defense, giving up just 105 yards per game. And even though it’s skewed by an 11-yard performance by FCS Sacramento State in Week 2, the Huskies have yet to allow a team to rush for better than 3.5 yards per carry.
Sarkisian was asked about their rush defense on Saturday, to which he responded by highlighting several UW players he recruited, such as linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria.
“They’re boxing the ball,” Sarkisian said. “They don’t let the ball get to the perimeter much. In turn, those guys are fitting their gaps well, getting off blocks and they’re tackling well.”
That could be worrisome for the Trojans, who struggled to gain traction on the ground in last week’s win over Arizona State. After gashing teams at times on the ground in the first three weeks, USC had just 34 yards through the first three quarters.
But as Sarkisian reiterated on Saturday, that’s a credit to ASU’s commitment to stacking the box and selling out against the run. The Sun Devils did the same thing against UCLA, holding the conference’s best running team to just 2.2 yards per carry.
Sep 4, 2015; Boise, ID, USA; Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Browning (3) sets up to pass during the first half verses the Boise State Broncos at Albertsons Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Browning is the other true freshman QB in the Pac-12
After a year in which several Washington quarterbacks opted to collectively lose the starting job, the Huskies have opted to go with true freshman Jake Browning. He may not have the hype around him that UCLA’s Josh Rosen does, but he’s not too bad himself.
Browning was the fifth-ranked pro-style quarterback in 247Sports Composite coming out of high school, and committed to Petersen after Sarkisian left for USC.
In four games, he’s sporting a 142.5 passer rating, while completing 64 percent of his passes. Despite four interceptions, you’ll take those numbers any day of the week from a true freshman.
How’s USC preparing for Browning? They’ve dressed up their own true freshman –Sam Darnold– as him on the scout team.
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