Cal Sports Digest: It seemed like the grumbling on Montlake was ramping up after Washington lost three consecutive games, but after upsetting Oregon State last week, an eight-win regular season is now a realistic goal. How does the fan base feeling about Steve Sarkisian's tenure so far, and how far away are the Huskies from challenging for the conference championship?
Chris Fetters of Dawgman : While I believe the general feeling that Sarkisian is a strong improvement over Tyrone Willingham, there's also a not-so-small minority that believe UW is suffering more than it should for the on-field misfires Sark makes as he evolves as a head coach. Sark is a young guy (38) and is very much still finding his way in terms of what works and what doesn't, and as long as he continues to make bowl games and backs it up with highly-rated recruiting classes the UW Athletic Department is going to give him a lot of leeway. But will that satisfy a fan base that wants to compete with rivals like Oregon right now? Hell, there's people complaining about the fact that fans stormed the field after beating the No. 7 team in the country because that team just happened to be Oregon State - and Washington is NEVER supposed to be that surprised in beating the Beavers. To many clad in purple and gold, wins over OSU are supposed to be taken for granted.
Right now Sark is taking a beating for the team's road woes - and rightfully so. So far this year UW has been outscored 145-41 in three road games. That's horrific for a fourth-year head coach. Obviously with a 4-4 season and Husky Nation riding the emotional roller coaster of two wins over top-10 teams in one season since 2001 juxtaposed against nightmarish performances against LSU, Oregon and Arizona - it's been a rough go for Sark. But most that have been critical of Sark also know that 2013 will be Year Five, and it's also supposed to be their best chance at competing for a league crown since 2000. He'll have a senior quarterback in Keith Price, a deep and experienced offensive line and a defense that is continuing to improve under the watchful eye of Justin Wilcox. So people are pointing to next year - and if UW doesn't compete for a crown by then I believe Husky fans will really start to question if Sark has what it takes. That's how it seems to be lining up.
CSD: After throwing for a school single-season record 33 touchdowns last season, the expectations were extremely high for quarterback Keith Price in his second year as the starter. However, he has just eight scoring passes against nine interceptions in 2012. What accounts for Price's apparent regression?
CF: A few things. First, Price was blessed with a multitude of skill options last year in Chris Polk, Jesse Callier, Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, Kasen Williams, James Johnson, Kevin Smith and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. All but Callier, Williams and ASJ remain, and Callier has been out for the year since the first game with a knee injury. Williams and ASJ, as talented as they are, are also true sophomores still learning their craft. Secondly, the attrition on the offensive line has clearly got to Price to the point where he was visibly shaken, if not mentally beat up by the constant, withering attacks put upon him. Anyone that saw how LSU, Oregon, Stanford and USC simply manhandled UW's offensive line and gave Price basically no quarter will understand how Keith has become more than a little gun shy. Third, there have been two major side effects of the lack of an experienced OL he can count on; Price's unwillingness to run to create yards via scramble, and a breakdown in trust and belief between Price and Sarkisian. They've talked about it openly - Sark mentioned it in stark terms after UW's defeat at Arizona. Last year before he got banged up, Price used his mobility as an asset to freeze defenders - you saw it in spades in the Alamo Bowl, for instance. Now if nothing is there on first glance, Price is more likely to step to the side and run to a sideline, hoping to find a receiver before he invariably has to throw it out of bounds. He almost never steps up into the pocket with the idea of escaping through the middle of the pocket toward a first down.
Another possibility - although this is more spitballing than anything else - is the effect Doug Nussmeier's transition to Alabama had on Price. Nuss was Keith's first and only QB Coach at UW until this year, and it sure seems like they had a great relationship. We'll never know if Price has been able to develop that type of bond with new QB Coach Eric Kiesau, but it seems like it's something that's going to constantly evolve as Price's career continues. Kiesau told me last week he went through another similar, crisis-of-confidence issue with Cody Hawkins at Colorado - so he's been there before. Price showed signs of belief and confidence at Oregon State, but it still wasn't close to some of the performances he put together last year. Price mentioned it himself during the OSU post-game; the next thing the offense has to do is show it can put together a game on the road. He understands the importance, and I think his building trust with the offensive line (who clearly had their best collective game Saturday) just might allow him to get back to his old self.
CSD: After the Alamo Bowl debacle, Washington completely overhauled its defense in the offseason. The early returns seem positive, though the raw numbers aren't indicative of the progress that has been made. Where have the biggest improvements come under new coordinator Justin Wilcox?
CF: You're right; if you go by just the statistics it's hard to see a substantive upgrade in Wilcox over Nick Holt - but it's definitely there nonetheless. They are playing extremely confident right now - especially in the secondary. But the defensive line - led by Tosh Lupoi - just isn't cutting it at all. They are the clear, clear weakness. They are 11th in the Pac-12 in rush defense and dead last in sacks. In fact they have just half (11) the amount of sacks Cal's defense has. Their pass rush has not been horrible - it's nonexistent, which makes the play of the secondary even that much more impressive. Overall tackling is better, especially in space, and it seems like this group really likes to play for each other. Three of the five UW captains are on defense (Trufant, Parker and Timu) and they have really stepped it up as of late. Because of the near complete overhaul of the UW defensive staff (Johnny Nansen is the only holdover from the Holt years), there's a real renewed energy, enthusiasm and sense of purpose on the defensive side of the ball.
CSD: Former California defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi has been public enemy No. 1 in Berkeley since leaving the Bears for the Huskies shortly before signing day, only to be joined by another assistant in wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau a few days later. What impact have Lupoi and Kiesau, who now serves as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for Washington, made on the field and in recruiting?
CF: It's really hard to tell at this point. Obviously Tosh has earned a rep as being one of the top recruiting assistants in the country, and I think UW fans that follow recruiting saw a glimpse of what he's capable of doing back in the summer when UW had eight players verbally commit to them all on the same day (it was during their Rising Stars Camp at the end of June). But as a position coach his impact so far has been mixed at best. I don't think it's a matter of Tosh being a good position coach - I think what he did with the Cal DL over the years speaks for itself. But recently UW has turned to the JC ranks to try and bolster their defensive line deficiencies, so that tells me they aren't thrilled with the current talent on hand. So in terms of on the field Lupoi hasn't really done much at all, but in recruiting it's obviously incomplete until after Signing Day. A lot of UW fans that follow recruiting closely are clinging to the belief that Tosh can pull some rabbits out of his hat in Seattle like he did in Berkeley, but that's obviously yet to be seen.
As far as Kiesau, I think he's been the most invisible staff member so far this spring and fall. The departure of Doug Nussmeier to Alabama was a big blow to UW's offense, and they are feeling the effects. Washington hasn't scored more than 21 points against any FBS team this season - you have to go back all the way to 1954 to find another UW team that deficient from a scoring standpoint. The general feeling - even when Nussmeier was at UW - was that the offense was always going to be Sarkisian's baby, so Kiesau will probably be able to toil in relative anonymity - at least until the Huskies completely fall apart offensively. Then everyone will want to take a piece out of him and dissect his role in the offense until there's nothing left on the carcass.
CSD: For the first time since 1944, Washington will play two games in less than seven days. How will the Huskies handle the short week?
CF: If anything, I think they want to play this game tomorrow. As Sarkisian noted during his Monday press briefing, all the players that are hurt right now for the Huskies are players that are out for the rest of the year - so that's already been dealt with. They came out of the OSU game with their normal bumps and bruises, but other than that they should be fine for the quick turnaround. From a confidence standpoint, not only do they want to capitalize on their strong play against the Beavers by backing it up at Cal, but they know the 800-pound gorilla is on their back because of their abysmal road record and they want to do everything they can to get rid of that in one fell swoop. So they are doubly motivated to produce a strong result and show the league their resiliency. I don't think the turnaround is going to hurt them much at all and might actually play into their hands a bit because of the good feeling coming out of the Oregon State game and their willingness to replicate that feeling as quickly as possible. Being on the road makes it even more relevant.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan