SEATTLE — Steve Sarkisian gained notoriety for his fancy, high-scoring units when he was an offensive coordinator. The Washington coach is OK with ugly victories, too.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the questions were about whether Sarkisian had lost his touch with the Huskies riding a three-game losing streak and getting blown out in two of the losses.
Those concerns have subsided after wins over Oregon State and Friday's sometimes unappealing 21-13 victory over California that improved the Huskies to 5-4 and put them on the cusp of securing a third straight bowl appearance.
Washington has three more chances at obtaining bowl eligibility beginning this week with its home finale against Utah. It closes the season at woeful Colorado before facing rival Washington State in the Apple Cup.
"I think when you win a game and then you win two in a row you start to find a way to win games rather than find a way to lose games," Sarkisian said on Monday. "We found a way to win a somewhat ugly football game, but like I said to the staff I'd rather win ugly than lose pretty."
Washington is the only team from a BCS conference that hasn't scored more than 21 points against an FBS opponent this year. But the Huskies are proving that 20 or 21 is enough thanks to a defense that continues to make stands at critical times and a running game that is making up for inconsistencies throwing.
With quarterback Keith Price still trying to find the same swagger that led to 33 touchdowns, the Huskies have relied more on the run game the last few weeks and may have found a star in sophomore Bishop Sankey. Against Oregon State, it was tougher to find the yards, but he still managed to rush for 92 yards and two touchdowns on the second best run defense in the conference.
But Sankey's breakout performance came on Friday night. He carried 29 times for 189 yards and will have an opportunity, perhaps as early as Saturday night, to become just the 11th running back in Washington history to run for 1,000 yards.
Sankey has 855 yards rushing and his 11 touchdowns are just one behind Chris Polk's total for 13 games last year.
"I don't know if I would have thought coming into the season, 'Bishop Sankey can carry the ball 30 times a night.' I didn't know if he was built in that way," Sarkisian said. "But he really is. He doesn't take a lot of head-on shots. He does a nice job bouncing off tacklers. We saw that the other night; he almost ricocheted forward on one run. He does a nice job of using his body to create runs. Probably has exceeded my expectations on that front, his ability to have that many carries and still be strong."
Keeping that success on the ground going will be difficult this week against Utah and standout defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. The Utes held Washington State to -4 net yards rushing last week, but the better barometer might be the 52 yards rushing they allowed to Oregon State in late October.
"It starts up front for them," Sarkisian said. "If we want to be effective Saturday night, our effectiveness has to begin up front. It can't just be on the perimeter or down the field, it has to be right up front."
In terms of yards passing, Price had his best game of the season in a victory against California. Part of that success was simply giving his talented receivers a chance to make plays in one-on-one situations. Price hit tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins twice for long gains where the Huskies tight end simply was too big for smaller defensive backs trying to defend him, and found receiver Kasen Williams on another. Seferian-Jenkins finished with eight catches for a career-high 152 yards and a touchdown against the Golden Bears.
"I'd like to see that number increase, to give them opportunities to make plays," Sarkisian said. "It's not a real secret. That's part of our game plan, you know. So much of what we do is trying to run the football effectively enough to make you play single-high defense, and then when we get our chances, one-on-one trying to win outside."