SEATTLE — There was a time when it didn’t matter if the Washington football team was healthy or ailing, on a roll or having just been rolled — it could always count on beating California. From 1977 to 2001, the Huskies beat the Bears 19 straight times, with improbable comebacks, methodical blowouts and everything in between.
Then coach Jeff Tedford arrived in Berkeley and everything changed. The Bears snapped UW’s skid in his first season at Cal in 2002 and won six of seven from 2002 through 2008.
Among coach Steve Sarkisian’s accomplishments since coming to UW in 2009, though, is reviving the dominance of Cal — the Huskies are 3-0 against the Bears since he arrived, a head-to-head record matched only by a similar mark against Washington State.
All of which means Cal appears to be the perfect team against which to solve an issue that has made this a very imperfect season for the Huskies — an inability to compete on the road.
The 4-4 Huskies are 0-3 in road games, outscored at LSU, Oregon and Arizona by an average of 34.7 points. Washington has lost all six road games since its last away victory at Utah last October, each of the defeats by at least 17 points.
Washington fans, though, can note that the list of foes in that span includes four teams that were ranked, and that another loss came in a game in which starting quarterback Keith Price was injured and didn’t start.
Sarkisian, however, said this week that the road woes can’t be ignored.
“We have challenges every week that we’re faced with, and we never shy away from them,” he said. “We almost magnify them because I want the team to know what the challenge is and what we need to respond to. For this week, that’s (winning on the road) our challenge.”
It’s a challenge that might have gotten a little easier on Thursday when it was announced that Cal’s leading receiver, Keenan Allen, would not play due to a left knee injury suffered in last week’s 49-27 loss at Utah. Allen, a junior, is considered one of the best receivers in the nation and ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in receptions with 60. He had 10 catches for 197 yards against UW last season, including a 90-yard touchdown that is tied for the second-longest play ever against the Huskies.
The Huskies, though, can take nothing for granted on the road with a 4-15 record in away games under Sarkisian.
Players say the reason for the road problems might just be the most obvious — they feel more comfortable at home.
“I think just as a team, we feed off of that home-crowd energy,” said receiver Kasen Williams. “We’ve just got to be able to bring that energy with us when we play on the road.”
If the Huskies can do that, that could be the only energy there is at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, where fans aren’t pleased with a 3-6 record, one of the worst under Tedford.
The season has many speculating about the future of a coach who just a few years ago was as hot as any in the country.
Now he simply has a hot seat, with the Bears having won just 15 of their past 36 games.
Cal appeared to have the goods this year to make a run at an upper-division finish in the Pac-12 North, having banked a succession of highly rated recruiting classes the past few years.
But Tedford has seemed to lose his once-magic touch with quarterbacks, and junior Zach Maynard has been erratic at best, getting little help from an offensive line that has allowed 34 sacks (and now having to work without Allen, not only his go-to receiver but also his half-brother). The Cal defense, which last year allowed the fewest yards in the conference, has fallen to eighth, and also eighth in pass-defense efficiency, providing some rays of hope for a UW offense that has struggled all season.
The game also features a return to Berkeley for former Cal assistant coaches Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau, lured to UW last January amid much fanfare.
The Huskies last week seemed to thrive on proving wrong those who began to doubt the team after a 52-17 loss at Arizona with the win over Oregon State.
This week hasn’t offered a similar challenge, other than the one Sarkisian himself has delivered about the team’s road woes, games in which the Huskies usually have fallen behind early and been unable to catch up.
“It’s not so much about them, it’s about us,” Price said. “Just executing in the right situations and getting off to a fast start.”