For UW’s Tuiasosopo, the Fight Hunger Bowl is the singular challenge

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By Morris Phillips

Washington’s plenty talented enough to hang with the BYU Cougars in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on tap at AT&T Park.  But with Head Coach Steve Sarkisian saying yes to USC and leaving Seattle after five seasons to coach the Trojans, one has to wonder what will be the collective mindset of the Huskies’ student-athletes when they hit the field on Friday night.

Could the Huskies feel spurned by Sarkisian, or be distracted by all the upheaval?  Or will a talented UW team leap to the challenge of attempting to win a ninth game in a season for the first time since 2000 when interim coach Marques Tuiasosopo led the Huskies to a 34-24 win over Purdue and Drew Brees in the Rose Bowl?

“You’d like to think every close team… would handle it the same way, but you just never know until you go through it,” Tuiasosopo said.  “I think our seniors have done a nice job, and I think our underclassmen have done a nice job of buying into what the seniors are talking about and staying focused on the task at hand.”

One thing’s for certain: the 34-year old Tuiasosopo is the point man for the Huskies’ mindset approaching kickoff on Friday night.  The UW legend, former Raider and son of Manu, the starting nose tackle for the 49ers in their second Super Bowl victory over Miami in 1985, is a rising star in the coaching profession.  In just five short years after retiring from the NFL in 2008, Tuiasosopo has gone from assistant strength coach at UW, to position coach at UCLA under Jim Mora, to quarterback coach and now interim head coach back at Washington with Sarkisian leaving and Boise State’s Chris Peterson set to take control of the Huskies following the bowl game.

And if Tuiasosopo can exude calm, excitement and anticipation for the meeting with BYU, why wouldn’t the players?  The interim coach’s situation couldn’t be any less unsettled than his team’s with a gaggle of UW assistants already gone to join Sarkisian in Los Angeles, and Peterson reportedly set to hire Jonathan Smith, his quarterbacks coach at Boise State, for the same position in Seattle.   Tuisasosopo might be a natural fit on Peterson’s staff in any capacity, or he could take his three week stint as head man and run with it… possibly to a head job at a non-BCS school looking to corral the unbridled energy of a promising, youthful coach.

Undoubtedly, Tuisasosopo and the Huskies will get just one shot together.  In BYU, the Huskies will face a staunch defensive team led by senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy that also features a power running attack led by dual threat quarterback Taysom Hill.  The Huskies will counter with oft-injured but supremely talented quarterback Keith Price and power back Bishop Sankey, who rushed for over 1,700 yards in the regular season.

The game figures to be high scoring and close; one requiring quick-twitch decisions and gutsy play calls, rigorous work for even the most seasoned of coaches. Not only will Tuisasosopo face all those challenges, he’ll do it with an unfamiliar staff.  Meanwhile BYU Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall has held the position for nine seasons and has made bowl appearances all nine times.  The contrast in experience couldn’t be more striking.

Still Tuisasosopo faces his challenge with enthusiasm and a keen eye on his alma mater’s history.  Price and safety Will Shamburger are the only remaining players from the 2009 recruiting the class that committed on the heels of the 0-12 season in 2008, the last under Coach Tyrone Willingham.  Tuisasopo referred to the 2008 season as the lowest point in the history of the school earlier this week.  Given that, Tuiasosopo frames the challenge of chasing a watershed ninth win on Friday as an historic quest.  And that’s what experienced coaches do: set goals and demand myopic focus on them.

“Now we’re at 8-4 and my hope… is that the young guys really focus on that, not everything else,” Tuiasosopo said.

And behind those goals are the players, committed to one coach who left and being asked to devote themselves to another… almost overnight.  Needless to say, according to Tuisasosopo, it can be confusing.

“They’re growing to become men, and sometimes they need to know ‘Hey, I totally understand what you’re going through.  They need someone there to help them through and manage and navigate their emotions through this process,” Tuiasosopo said.