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Updated Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 10:09 AM

Huskies looking for fourth straight win

By Bob Condotta
Seattle Times staff reporter

Funny how quickly perceptions can change in college football.

A month ago, with Washington 3-4 and coming off a 52-17 loss at Arizona, the talk about the Huskies largely centered on the question of whether they were treading water in the fourth season under coach Steve Sarkisian.

Now, after three straight wins, including an upset of No. 7 Oregon State?

"I think Sark should be one of the guys thought of as (Pac-12) coach of the year," former UW coach Rick Neuheisel, now an analyst for Pac-12 Networks, said this week. "They are on the cusp of being an 8-4 team and going to a good bowl. And if you can get a ninth win, that's an unbelievable springboard to recruiting."

What stands out to Neuheisel about the coaching job done by Sarkisian?

"The attrition they took on the offensive line was substantial, and the way he and (offensive line coach) Dan Cozzetto have built not only an offense that can generate yards but has Bishop Sankey as a 1,000-yard back, that's just a phenomenal job by all involved," Neuheisel said.

Indeed, it might be the manner in which the Huskies reconfigured their offense that has been the key to the three-game winning streak they take into a game at 10:30 a.m. Saturday against the reeling Colorado Buffaloes (1-9).

Washington threw the ball 52 times in the loss at Arizona, the most since Neuheisel was coach in 2002, and ran it just 29.

They have averaged 31 passes in the three games since (and no more than 33 in any game) while running the ball an average of 38 times.

Sankey, a sophomore in his first season as a go-to back, has gained 437 yards in the past three games, putting him at 1,011 yards. It's the fourth straight year UW has had a 1,000-yard rusher (Chris Polk did it the previous three years). Washington had just one 1,000-yard rusher from 1997 to 2008, before Sarkisian took over.

The improved running game also coincided with the Huskies settling on a five-man group on the offensive line — Micah Hatchie at left tackle, Dexter Charles at left guard, Drew Schaefer at center, Mike Criste at right guard and Ben Riva at right tackle — after lots of shuffling earlier in the year, due in part to a slew of injuries.

Sarkisian, asked this week the keys to the improved running game, said: "I think there's continuity amongst the offensive line. I think it's Bishop's comfort level and maturity and growing and understanding the position. And I think it's our coaching staff understanding what these guys do well."

It could be more of the same against Colorado, which ranks 114th in the nation against the run, allowing 227 yards per game.

That's just one of many dubious numbers for the Buffs, who have allowed 48 or more points six times, five times in Pac-12 games. Opponents of Colorado have been able to do just about whatever they want, and the Huskies will surely look for ways to get the ball to receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, as well. But first, expect a big dose of the running game.

Washington's defense held Oregon State, Cal and Utah to a combined 45 points during the win streak. That's the best three-game stretch in conference play for the Huskies since 1996, and further proof of the revival of the defense in the first year under coordinator Justin Wilcox.

That's another trend that could continue. The Buffs have been held to 17 or fewer points in seven of 10 games, and are likely to go with little-used sophomore Connor Wood at quarterback with last week's starter, Nick Hirschman, injured, and the team having benched former starter Jordan Webb.

The Huskies have won twice this year as at least a touchdown underdog (Stanford, Oregon State), so they know anything can happen. Sarkisian thinks his team will be ready to play.

"Ultimately when you step on the field you have to execute and make your plays," Sarkisian said. "We weren't great at that at that time (against Arizona). We're much better than that now a month later."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @bcondotta

Saturday

Washington @ Colorado, 10:30 a.m., FX



Rick Neuheisel




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