UW prepares for season’s third quarter

Steve Sarkisian is renowned for his offensive acumen and for the transformation he’s orchestrated in the football culture on Montlake. But he’s also proven adept at midseason motivation and at establishing an identity and a mission for his team.

Last season, Sarkisian’s metaphor of choice was that the Huskies were climbing a mountain. They were ascending the Pac-12, slowly but steadily, and needed the attitude of alpinists, never skipping a step in the present to get ahead in the future. The base of a consistently competitive program had to be built.

Monday, after a second loss to top-level competition in as many weeks, Sarkisian introduced a new analogy. All year, the Huskies have been a second-half team; now, as they embark on the second half of the regular season, nothing should change.

“We’re at halftime. We’re in the locker room, and we’re a 4-2 football team,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve played a good first half of football against some really good teams. ... We’re going to go out in the second half and play a great half of the season.”

The point between the sixth and seventh games of a season is a natural dividing point, and this year, it happens to fall at a convenient time for the UW.

Those consecutive losses to Stanford and Oregon have sucked some of the hot air out of a 4-0 start. This week’s contest at Arizona State, where the UW hasn’t won since 2001, is no gimme, and games against No. 9 UCLA (6-0) and Oregon State (5-1) still loom ahead. If the Huskies let a mini losing streak affect their play on the field, more losses could quickly pile up.

Which is why it’s crucial Sarkisian emphasizes the incompleteness of the season. Stanford and Oregon may have been the most important games on the schedule in August, but they’ve now come and gone. Eyes focused ever on the future, Sarkisian needs his players to do the same.

The UW has outscored its opponents 124-69 in the second half this season, thanks largely to the tactical adjustments made offensively by Sarkisian and defensively by coordinator Justin Wilcox. There are similar adjustments to be made during the second half of the season if the Huskies hope to return to their winning ways.

For one, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and wide receiver Kasen Williams need the ball more often. Their presence as decoys has certainly factored into Bishop Sankey’s scalding first half, but that should begin to work the other way; as defenses allocate resources to slow the nation’s leading rusher, it should leave lessened coverage on the UW’s two deadliest perimeter weapons.

The Huskies also must improve their kickoff coverage, which currently ranks 112th nationally in yards allowed per return. Stanford’s Ty Montgomery memorably shredded the unit, but it was again shaky against Oregon. In presumably tight games to come, 20 extra yards of field position could tilt the outcome.

Finally, the UW must reinforce its secondary. Yes, the Huskies currently rank 17th in the nation in pass defense, and no, it’s not quite fair to knock them for falling victim to Marcus Mariota. But beginning with Arizona State, they will face five of the nation’s 17 most potent passing offenses in their final six games. Marcus Peters and Greg Ducre have been exemplary this season, but a serious test of endurance is ahead.

Reach columnist Kevin Dowd at sports@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @KevinDowd

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