SEATTLE (AP) — At first the goal for Steve Sarkisian was getting Washington back to respectability.
Then came a bowl game. And another. Now in his fourth season, the Huskies have made incremental progress under Sarkisian with new benchmarks reached each season.
Another milestone can be reached on Saturday night when the Huskies (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) play their final home game of the season against Utah. A victory would make Washington bowl eligible for the third straight season, the first time the Huskies have booked themselves a postseason trip in three consecutive years since a run of eight straight bowl trips was snapped in 2003.
Thanks to upsets of Oregon State and Stanford at home — both ranked in the AP Top 10 at the time — the Huskies have enough wiggle room that they need just one win in their final three games to become bowl eligible.
But to continue that incremental progress and potentially better its record from a year ago, Washington needs to win out, a task that seems entirely plausible with all three remaining opponents having losing records. First, though, comes trying to close out a stellar home schedule in Washington’s temporary home of CenturyLink Field while Husky Stadium is being remodeled.
“We’ve played well at home, we have one loss that I wish we could have the last quarter-and-a-half back of that game because I think it could have been a different outcome as well,” Sarkisian said. “But we have played well at home, especially defensively and we are looking forward to another really good effort from our guys.”
Washington got an extra day of rest this week after beating California on Nov. 2, snapping a six-game road losing streak that dated back to the Huskies’ 31-14 win at Utah on Oct. 1, 2011.
For one week, the Huskies solved their problems playing on the road. Now it’s Utah’s turn to see if it can.
Utah (4-5, 2-4) is coming off consecutive blowout wins at home, scoring 49 points each in wins over California and Washington State.
But the lingering issue with the Utes is their struggles on the road. It started in Week 2 with a loss at state rival Utah State and has not gotten any better. The Utes were blown out at Arizona State before dropping close losses at UCLA and Oregon State. Utah’s last road win came late last season when the Utes pulled out a 30-27 overtime win at Washington State.
If Utah is going to a bowl game for the 10th straight season the Utes need two wins in their final three games, with two of those being on the road.
“The next step is a signature road win, and I think this is a great opportunity,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I think that’s the next step not only for (QB) Travis (Wilson) but for our football team. That’s something we need to shoot for and achieve.”
The Utes are hoping John White can continue his resurgent second half of the season running the ball and Reggie Dunn can keep returning kicks with remarkable success and take some of the load off Wilson, the Utes true freshman QB who only took over as the starter four games ago.
White topped the 100-yard mark in the season opener against Northern Colorado then failed to reach the century mark until two weeks ago against California when he rushed for 105 yards. He followed that up with 101 yards last week against Washington State as Utah improved to 11-0 when White tops 100 yards.
While White has gotten the running game started, Dunn’s play on special teams has made the biggest impact. After returning a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns against California, Dunn did it again last week against the Cougars, taking the second-half kickoff 100 yards for his third score in two weeks.
“They’re excellent on special teams. You can tell they work at it, they practice it,” Sarkisian said. “It’s not just the kickoff return game. I know we’ve seen that the past two weeks with Reggie but they do it with the way they come after you punting the ball, the way they cover kickoffs, they do it all. It’s going to be important.”
Washington’s improved running game with the emergence of Bishop Sankey is likely to get one of its toughest tests of the season facing a Utah defensive front led by Star Lotulelei and brothers Joe and Dave Kruger. Sankey is coming off a career-best 189 yards rushing against Cal, while Utah has allowed just 201 total yards rushing in the last three games.
“We’re doing this for the seniors. We’ve got to win two of three and my brother Dave is a senior, too, and I’m doing it for him, too,” Joe Kruger said. “Some of these guys have been here a long time, for some it’s their fifth year. Some of these guys will never play football again after this year. I’m just working for those guys,”
AP Sports Writer Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.