Monday meant the turning of the page for the Washington Huskies from Hawaii to Nebraska — stark contrasts indeed in any number of ways.
It also meant UW coach Steve Sarkisian’s weekly press conference, and as always, here is some of what he said:
Opening statement: “We’re in the thick of it now where it’s one week after another, the routine of it – but it’s the routine that we love. To look back at last week’s ball game, to kind of move on from that – I thought our kids really responded to a challenge. A challenge to them physically, but emotionally, mentally – I thought they responded really well. And in turn, we got off to a pretty fast start in that ball game with the offense clicking pretty good, the defense creating a turnover, and away we go.
“I thought that Keith Price had a fantastic ball game. Really, even when you look at the film after, very efficient, was on point with where he needed to be with the ball – made a couple of plays with his legs to buy time. Just had great command of the game, and hopefully we can continue to go down that road with him. I thought that Desmond Trufant stepped up again, creating another interception there and the the return, the two point play. I thought the presence of Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse – again it’s evident on film, from a calming perspective for the quarterback and just the overall tempo of the offense. I think they had a very good feel for getting lined up. And this was a challenging game for our skill guys because of the amount of shifts and motions that we used in the game. And for us to come out of the game without a false start or an illegal formation – really proud of our guys from that end. It was great to see Jesse Callier get another big kickoff return. It’s been an area of emphasis for us. Hopefully we can get the punt return game going.
“Things to work on: Obviously our ability to finish, the fourth quarter – which is something that we’ve really tried to pride ourselves on, especially last season. We just didn’t perform the way I know we’re capable of performing in that fourth quarter, on a lot of fronts. To close out that ball game offensively, we had two opportunities to do that, and we’re unable to do that. That’s the second-straight week that’s happened, so that will be addressed. Obviously, the special teams blunder on the rugby punt – inexcusable. And so issues there that need to get cleaned up for us, because as we move forward, as we march on, as these better opponents are starting to show themselves to us, you can’t afford to make those types of mistakes.
“Third down – if you look at the number of third downs for our defense, gosh – we just have to contain the dang quarterback. That’s killing us on third down right now. It’s not like we’re not there in coverage; but when a guy has the ball and he rolls right, and he rolls back left – it’s hard to cover a guy that long – whether you’re in man or zone coverages. So we’ve got to find a way of – as we’re trying to put pressure on the quarterback, to contain the quarterback, and keep him in the pocket. And that’s obviously going to be doubly important this week as much as any, with (Taylor) Martinez Saturday. So it’ll be something we work on is third down and it’s something we emphasize. We need to get better; it’s too big a factor. We need to get off the field on defense. They are on the field too long, for too many plays in a row. We’ve got to be able to get off the field.
“Really proud of the fact that we’re plus-5 in the turnover margin right now after two weeks. It’s an emphasis of ours, about being able to take care of the football and creating turnovers. So to have created six turnovers already in two weeks of ball is fantastic. We would love to average three turnovers a game, and so far, so good. We’re on pace for that.
“I think our emphasis on special teams now is showing up, when you think this is two weeks now we’ve had special teams player of the week – it was Erik Folk last week and Everrette Thompson this week after blocking two kicks. And that’s a real tribute to Cort Dennison and how hard he played. That’s a tough ball game to get Pac-10 player of the week, defensively, with 12 tackles and a forced fumble there in the first quarter. In review of the game, I’m really proud of the way our kids responded. They were willing, they did everything we wanted them to do. But at the end of the day, we know that that’s still not good enough. We’ll continue to improve, we’ll continue to work, we’ll continue to strive for excellence, and we need to get there.
“As far as the upcoming game against Nebraska, it’s a great environment. I’ve had an opportunity to coach there one other time. It’s a tremendous environment. Great fans. It’s what college football should be. I said this last year: there’s probably no coach in America that I have more respect for than Bo Pelini, from an X’s and O’s standpoint for sure. He’s a tremendous coach, his defenses played hard, fast, smart. So it’s a tremendous challenge for us on that end. Obviously, on the offensive side of the ball, Taylor Martinez is the key to what they’re doing, and that hasn’t changed. Obviously with his legs running the ball, but also throwing the ball and utilizing the tight end with the (Tyler) Reed kid and some of the bigger receivers and the Burkhead kid at running back, with the versatility he provides. Last year he was doing a lot of the Wildcat stuff. He can throw the ball, he can run the ball. So really, those are there main three guys offensively. Defensively, they’re led up front by Jared Crick, who’s a big, physical defensive tackle. You need to know how you’re going to handle him and you need to plan for him. Then right behind him is the linebacker, David, who’s a tackling machine. I think he had 15 tackles again last week, he set a school record a year ago for tackles for Nebraska. He can really run, he’s instinctive, and so we obviously need to have a plan for him. And then our expectation is that (Alfonzo) Dennard is going to be out there at corner for him. He’s a tremendous player who we had the luxury of seeing last year, and I don’t think we completed a pass on him last year in two games. Great challenge posed by him on all three phases of the game, and rightfully so. We understand we have our work cut out for us, as obviously other people do. I don’t think we’re obviously predicted to win the game, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
On Thompson’s blocks: “Well, Everette Thompson is a pretty good PAT and field goal blocker. Two weeks ago against Eastern Washington, I think he was in the backfield three or four times, and he was just missing the ball. So we found a little something in the scheme there with Hawaii that we thought we could Everette through there. The first couple of times he couldn’t get through, then he got going and was able to get skinny and pop through there. And he’s a pretty tall, rangy kid at 6-6. So it was more about us than it really was about Hawaii.
On the difference in the two games against Nebraska last year: “Well, I think we got better, one. Just overall, scheme-wise, we were a better football team. We found our identity a bit, running the ball, playing defense. I just thought we played better. And we’re continually getting better. I don’t think it’s a fluke that we’re on a six-game winning streak right now. I think that we’re getting better, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to be better Saturday. We have to continue to improve this week in practice and find the areas of concern that we need to improve upon, some of which I’ve already noted, and then to go in and play a Nebraska, a well-coached football team in that environment, it’s a great challenge for us. So I just think the whole mentality’s gotten better. It’s a style of football that we believe in – there have been some blips on the radar when we haven’t seen that, most notably two weeks ago, but for the most part we’re playing a physical brand of football, we’re believing in the running game – we’re not trying to come out and throw 45 times a game – we’re going to run the football, play sound defense, try to minimize possessions in the ball game and give ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter, which is something we did late in the year and is something we’ll continue to try to do this year and believe in the notion of finishing ball games.”
On preparing young kids for the trip: “I think you try to paint a picture. I’m not going to send them in there without them knowing anything about it. We try to paint a picture and give them a history lesson of Nebraska football and that stadium and some of the games of the Huskies going to that stadium so that they get an idea. But the reality of it is part of it is I’m not here to coddle these guys, either. They are here for a reason and we will make sure they are mentally tough enough to handle the environment.”
On Nebraska’s kickoff returns and UW’s coverage: “It’s been good. Last week again, the one that gets out we have two guys right there and we don’t make the play. So have to emphasize our leverage tackles and things of that nature but I think from a scheme standpoint and an effort standpoint we are right on point. It’s better than not when Erik really strikes the ball, the ball is down near the goal line instead of them catching it around the 12. And then ultimately we have to tackle. The one that gets out down their sidelines, we have two players there. It’s football, you have to tackle.”
On the third-down defensive struggles: “Well, I think those two systems are pretty efficient third-down teams because they are so accustomed to kind of dinking and dunking the ball around. But I also attribute some of that to when we are rushing the passer we have to understand our contain rules and our rush lanes and we haven’t done a great job of that the first two weeks, so we have to get better and I think we will get better. It will be a real point of emphasis this week.”
On what is unique about playing at Nebraska: “They’ve got great fans. It’s one of the great things about playing in Lincoln is you go out an hour before kickoff for pre-game warm-ups and it’s packed. The stadium is full, they are all there. They love pre-game warm-ups as much as the game, so it’s a unique setting that way. You can really feel the energy in the stadium. And just about everybody in the stadium is wearing red.”
On Price taking blame for the interception he threw and if that shows his maturity: “Sure, sure. That’s what you like to have and it was my fault. I didn’t coach it well enough and it was a little miscommunication with Kevin Smith and Keith and part of that was me giving Kevin a little bit more advice on the route that we wanted and I think the next time we get that look it will be a touchdown pass, I really do. The play was there, we’ve just got to coach it better.”
On how good Nebraska’s secondary was last year: “They were really good. We had a hard time completing balls, I don’t know how many balls we completed in two games but it wasn’t many, so they were challenging. But they will be challenging this year. They’ve got a JC transfer at safety that has gotten better from week one to week two and they will get Dennard back out there and he’s a big factor for them. It’s as much about the scheme as it is the players.”
On the health of the squad: “Good, very good. I think we will get Greg Walker back, it was a mild concussion so I think he will be back. Keith’s knee came out great, his knee is good. Chris (Polk’s) knee is good. Cort (Dennison) has a little bit of a thigh bruise there near the end of the game but he should be fine.”
On Nate Fellner: “That’s the one really biggest question mark is with the hamstring, we’ll see. I don’t know the severity and how he responds. He has had hamstrings in the past and has recovered pretty quickly and gotten back out there so we’ll see.
On Justin Glenn coming in for Fellner: “He fit right in and the guy who is making a push now for us too is Taz Stevenson, he has gotten more and more healthy so it will be good to get Taz hopefully back out on the field as well.
On James Sample: “He’s back going again it looks like and he’s got a little different pad on that arm to protect it.”
Do feel like your kids played with an edge in the Holiday Bowl?: “I think there is a little bit to that. I think as much as anything the first time around we didn’t play very well. I don’t’ think it was a matter of our guys wanting to do well, we didn’t play well. We had a bunch of missed assignments. Defensively, guys have responsibilities with the zone read stuff and we weren’t there and we got hurt badly with Martinez running and Helu running. I think offensively we pressed a little bit, and obviously the turnovers hurt. The second time around I don’t think about us having more of an edge, it was about us not killing ourselves, and putting our best foot forward and giving ourselves a chance to be part of the ball game where we didn’t really do that the first time.
On playing Nebraska for a third time in a year: “There’s somewhat of an NFL feel from coach’s standpoint and the players’ standpoint. But the reality is we are a different team, they are a different team this year and the game is going to take on its own complexion. It’s a different game this year. ”
On having to counterpunch if Nebraska adjusts to what UW did in the Holiday Bowl: “I would say that the biggest factor in that game at the Holiday Bowl was No. 1. Chris Polk carried the ball 30 some odd times, but that’s not a real secret anymore. I don’t think we are going to come out and not hand the ball to No. 1. They understand that. We know that. It’s just a matter of how we are getting him the ball, what situation, what types of runs. But that was the biggest factor offensively. Defensively, I think we played sound defense. We didn’t do anything magical. We just played sound defense.”
On Martinez: “He’s fast and we need to contain him because if we don’t, he’s going to outrun us. It’s pretty simple. ”
On plusses and minuses of playing a team so many times: “The plusses are that you have a little familiarity with their personnel. The minuses are that they have familiarity with your personnel. I don’t think either team is going to make drastic changes schematically. We are who we are, they are who they are. Ultimately I think both staffs are well coached and they’ll have wrinkles here and there to take advantage of those things.”
More thoughts on Nebraska: “No, we’re a different team. I know we are excited about the opportunity to go to Lincoln and play in Memorial Stadium. It’s a tremendous place to play. It’s a great atmosphere. I know they will be all fired up. Their fans will be fired. I expect our guys to be as well. The key for us in this game, forget the rubber match and the revenge and all that stuff. It’s how we respond as a team. How we can go on the road for the first time in 2011, hanging together and be together in a hostile environment, live through some of the mistakes or some of the plays that don’t go our way, stay mentally touch, which we pride ourselves on being, and fight through and find a way in the fourth quarter to be in a tight ball game and ultimately close and finish. That’s the key to me. It’s nothing against Nebraska and their fans, but this trip is really more about us than them. It’s our ability to go on the road, regardless of the opponent, and do this thing. We got better at it last year as a football team, whether it was going to the coliseum and playing SC, whether it was going to Cal, the opportunities we had I thought we grew together on the road last year and this has got to be the next step this year as we go on the road.”
On the play of the young linebackers: “Well, we’ve got to be sound, and we’ve got to make sure we aren’t doing too much where they can play fast and not think. The first time around (last year) we were playing with a freshman middle backer that found out he was playing on Thursday. That was not the easiest task for him to have. To have two young backers, with Princeton (Fuimaono) and Johnny (Timu), the key is they know their assignments really well so they can play fast. If they have hesitation that’s when mistakes can occur, or you get beat. I think we’ve got a game plan that’s going to be conducive to those guys playing to the best of their ability, so that we don’t have those missed assignments or hesitation where big plays are created.”
On Alameda Ta’amu’s play in the Nebraska games last year: “I think he just got better the second half of the season. If you look at the last four games he was a factor, and I thought he got better this Saturday from the Saturday before. Just his get off. His hands at the line of scrimmage. There’s the comfort level playing with the cast stuff now. So just like everything, like with a lot of guys on the team, they just improved as the season went on. And Alameda was a prime example of that.”
On the difference in the rushing defense in the two games last year: “I think that was one of them. But again I think it was our ability to stay tuned in and keyed to what our jobs were, what our responsibilities were, and guys not trying to do too much and missing assignments — veteran players. Guys did their jobs, held their ground, stayed in their gap, stayed keyed on their assignment and made the plays when they came to them, and made their tackles. We didn’t have guys assigned to the quarterback go tackle the running back when the quarterback pulled the ball and was running down the sidelines. That didn’t happen the second time around. So we’ve just got to stayed keyed in and true to our assignments, and stay physical and still have the ability to tackle.”
On how to prepare for Martinez in practice: “He’s probably faster than anyone on our team. No, we can’t. You just try to give them the idea of the types of plays they are running, and then make sure we talk about taking good angles. He’s fast. It’s not a secret. The dude is fast.”
On if he looks more comfortable passing this year: “Very similar to me. Pretty similar. They are throwing for a little more than 100 yards a game, 100-some-odd yards a game. To me it’s more of a change up. They want to run the ball, it’s no secret. Similar to us, they want to run the ball. It’s a change up when they do want to throw the ball, or when it’s an obvious passing down. They are going to run the ball. They are going to run it.”
On if Polk is healthy enough to run it 34 times again if need be: “Sure. Sure, without a doubt.”
On the play of Austin Seferian-Jenkins: “Hopefully he can continue to grow. The key for a player like an Austin, a Kasen (Williams), he needs to understand how important practice is during the week so he can perform on Saturday.”
On the blocking of the tight ends: “We’re OK blocking right now. We’re OK. And that’s going to come in time. We’re a little inconsistent. We’ll do some nice things blocking, and that at other times we look like we’re not trying. And it’s not because they are not trying. It’s because we are unsure, and when — again, just like on defense — on offense when uncertainty kicks in that’s when you get beat. And so it’s not for lack of effort. These guys are trying — Austin’s trying, Mike’s trying. But when we get beat in the run game offensively, that’s because of the uncertainty. That’s going to get better as we keep doing these things over and over and over again. Then they will be really able to utilize their mass and athleticism when they are blocking one on one against defensive ends.”