Steve Sarkisian recruited several current Washington Huskies players, coached them for a year or two or three, and now will coach against them for the first time when UW visits USC in Los Angeles on Thursday night.
That, surely, will be strange, or awkward, or exciting, or, at the very least, something worth acknowledgment and discussion. Right?
Nah. Just ask them.
Here’s fifth-year senior tight end Josh Perkins: “It’s going to be a tough game, like any other game in the Pac-12 (Conference). We’re not thinking we’re going in there playing Coach Sark. We’re playing USC. There’s no extra incentive or anything.”
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And fifth-year senior center Siosifa Tufunga: “It’s not something we worry about. All we worry about is just us; how we practice, how we’re going to bring the energy.”
And third-year sophomore defensive tackle Elijah Qualls: “It’s going to be a little weird at first. My focus isn’t going to be their sideline, it’s the people on the field. It’s not really going to be a thing until maybe after the game.”
Even fifth-year senior defensive lineman Taniela Tupou, who revealed earlier this season that Sarkisian’s staff encouraged him to transfer in 2013, conceded no extra motivation.
“It’s just going to be like any other game,” Tupou said. “They’re a good team. We’re just excited, just blessed for the opportunity to go out there and play the game we love.”
Hard to say that’s the wrong way to approach it, given that 17th-ranked USC enters this game as a 17-point favorite, so it’s true that the Huskies (2-2, 0-1 in Pac-12) have plenty to worry about besides Sarkisian’s presence on the opposite sideline.
But just as UW coach Chris Petersen admitted that his return to Boise State for the season opener would be “awkward,” there will doubtlessly be a certain amount of that on Thursday, too, regardless of whether the Huskies are willing to say so publicly.
And it’s not just Sarkisian. Five members of USC’s coaching staff worked at UW in 2013, including: defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, defensive backs coach Keith Heyward, tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo, and running backs/special-teams coach Johnny Nansen.
The Trojans still employ an up-tempo offensive scheme that will look similar to the fast-paced offense Sarkisian instituted at UW in 2013, though Huskies coaches say the Trojans are more varied than UW was under Sarkisian.
“I think they’re doing a little bit more,” Petersen said. “They have some two-back concepts, as well. Not just all spread. So there’s a lot of variety there.”
Defensively, though, at least one UW player sees the same basic concepts run by Wilcox’s defenses in 2012-13, his two seasons as the Huskies’ defensive coordinator.
“Everything they do is familiar to me — returns to blocking schemes to you name it,” said senior receiver Jaydon Mickens, a Los Angeles native who grew up rooting for the Trojans and once committed to play at USC. “But knowing Coach Sark and knowing his coaching staff, they’re going to throw some curveballs at us. And that’s what type of guy he is, and that’s what type of football team he created at that university right now. He’s going to play hard-nosed football. He’s not going to change anything up.”
Sarkisian said last week that he has no regrets about his five-year UW tenure, which he finished with a 34-29 record and four bowl appearances in five years (though he was no longer around to coach the Fight Hunger Bowl in 2013). He took over in 2009 after Tyrone Willingham coached UW to an 0-12 record in 2008 and was fired.
Sarkisian said he’s “proud of the work that we did,” and “proud of the fact, I think, (that) the program (was) in a better position the day we left than the day we got there.”
“It’s going to be fun to compete against them,” Sarkisian said. “I know they’re going to be ready to go. I wouldn’t expect any less of them.”
Since they parted ways in December 2013, both UW and Sarkisian have struggled to meet expectations. The Huskies went 8-6 in Petersen’s first season as coach despite having four players later selected in the first 44 picks of the NFL draft, and are just 2-2 so far this year.
Sarkisian, whose hire at USC was not widely extolled, led the Trojans to a disappointing-by-their-standards record of 9-4 in 2014, then suffered some bad publicity in late August after he had to apologize for showing up clearly intoxicated to a booster function and using an obscenity during a slurred speech in front of the gathered crowd.
The incident amplified the scrutiny already surrounding him, increasing the pressure to lead USC to a College Football Playoff appearance this season.
So maybe all participants truly will have too much at stake on Thursday to spend much time thinking about the opposite sideline. Petersen certainly insisted that was the case when UW visited Boise, but after the game ended he did spend a few minutes on the field, hugging and briefly greeting as many BSU personnel as he could. Perhaps a similar exchange will follow Thursday’s game.
For now, everyone insists they’re simply not thinking about it.
“It’s no extra motivation,” Mickens said. “All the motivation in the world is to knock off a top-25 opponent.”
THURSDAY: UW (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) at USC (3-1, 1-1), 6 p.m., ESPN, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM