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Originally published October 16, 2009 at 3:53 PM | Page modified October 16, 2009 at 10:45 PM

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Huskies' hard road to bowl goes through Arizona State

Coach Steve Sarkisian cautions that if his Huskies are to qualify for a bowl game, they first have to win a road game. Washington hasn't done that since November 2007.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tonight

Washington @ Arizona State, 7:15 p.m., FSN

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Before the Washington Huskies can think about a bowl game, coach Steve Sarkisian says they'd better figure out how to win a game on the road.

And the sooner the better.

If Washington really wants to make the unlikely leap from 0-12 to bowl game in the first year under Sarkisian, winning tonight's 7:15 game at Arizona State isn't necessarily a must, but it's right up there.

Sarkisian, despite dropping subtle hints to playing in bowl games and staying in the Pac-10 race in his news conferences, is a little more cautious when asked outright about the postseason, saying there are more immediate hurdles.

"It's so far away," he said of the postseason. "It's kind of like, 'Man, we are just trying to scratch and claw and get this one this week.' It's hard to say we are looking at this game or that game. For us, we've got to win this week, and this week is big for a lot of reasons. For one, it is hopefully our first road win."

In fact, Washington hasn't won a road game since Nov. 3, 2007, when it won at Stanford 27-9. It since has lost nine straight road games by an average of 23 points, only four by less than 20. That tally includes a 34-14 loss at Stanford three weeks ago on the heels of the upset over USC. But it also includes an overtime 37-30 loss at Notre Dame. Washington coaches view the Irish loss as a step forward.

"As a football team, we grew up from our second road trip to our first," said offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. "Our first road trip, we didn't play very good. Physically they beat us to the point of attack. We played reactive instead of proactive football. We seemed a step slow. ... I felt at Notre Dame we played fast and we played physical, and it will be important for us to do that again this week."

What makes tonight's game especially critical is that the Huskies have to win at least three more games to get to a bowl game, with a 6-6 record likely getting them in.

On paper, it appears to be a winnable game for Washington. The Sun Devils are 3-2 overall, but haven't played a schedule as taxing as UW's, losing at home to Oregon State 28-17 and winning at WSU 27-14 in its two Pac-10 games.

In a lot of ways, the Sun Devils are mirror opposites of UW. While the Huskies have a dangerous offense led by quarterback Jake Locker but a defense that ranks 106th in the country, Arizona State has a struggling offense — surprising given Erickson's history for guiding high-flying teams — but a defense that currently ranks among the best in the nation.

In fact, ASU ranks first in the Pac-10 in both total defense (221.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (49.6). Both stats were aided greatly by holding Washington State to minus-54 rushing yards last week in Pullman thanks to a school-record 12 sacks.

Still, UW coaches say the Arizona State defense is the real deal. They point to players with legitimate NFL potential such as tackle Lawrence Guy, end Dexter Davis and true freshman Vontaze Burfict, whom the Sun Devils lured away from USC and is among the most heralded recruits in school history.

"That's maybe the best front that we have seen," said Nussmeier, whose Huskies have played Louisiana State and USC. "They are big, physical and fast."

That could put more of an onus on Locker to take advantage of his feet — if not running, at least moving in the pocket.

The Huskies did just enough last week to beat Arizona 36-33 thanks to an unfathomable 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Mason Foster with 2:37 left. That allowed the Huskies to win despite being outgained 461-256, the latter a season low in offensive yards. Skeptics note UW has been held under 300 yards in three of its past four games, indicating there are still some issues on that side of the ball. But the Huskies have found a way to win two of those games, the other the near-miss at Notre Dame.

"This has been a season of firsts for us with a lot of different things we have been doing," Sarkisian said. "Hopefully now this is the next step and we go out and get [a road] win."

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

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