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UCLA game begins a defining stretch for Washington

By Brent Stecker

When it comes to figuring out where the Huskies stand after five years under coach Steve Sarkisian, their final three games of the regular season could not be more important.

The Huskies have picked themselves back up after a disappointing three-game skid, but as they sit at 6-3 overall (3-3 Pac-12), the way they perform in the last three games of the conference slate will have a huge impact on how the program is perceived. If they win all three, they're a top 25 team and will have nine wins heading into a bowl game. But if they stumble in more than one of those contests, they'll finish around .500 and play in one of the less significant of the 35 bowls.

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The Huskies, who are 6-3 with three games remaining in the regular season, have never finished with more than seven wins under fifth-year coach Steve Sarkisian. (AP)
Sarkisian, who has yet to lead the Huskies to more than seven wins since taking over the program in 2009, knows how important this stretch is for the program, as he told 710 ESPN Seattle's "Wyman, Mike and Moore" on Tuesday.

"When it's all said and done, how we come out of this month I think will be a real indication in defining what this team is about and where this team is headed," said Sarkisian, whose team will meet No. 13 UCLA on the road Friday night. "I don't want to put all our eggs in one basket for one game. We understand that this is a big one for a lot of reasons, but this final month is (important).

"The last thing we want to do is go out and play great Friday night and get a win against UCLA and then turn around and stumble in the final two. We want to play really good football the entire month of November and we got off to a good start last week."

The Huskies will travel to Oregon State next week and then will meet Washington State on Nov. 29 in the Apple Cup, but the Bruins pose the biggest challenge of the final run thanks to a defense that allows just 22.9 points per game (26th in the FBS) and is stingy against the run. Of course, the Huskies have the NCAA's No. 3 rusher, Bishop Sankey, so Sarkisian expects an epic matchup between his junior running back and UCLA's run stoppers.

"Their front seven on defense is very talented. (Linebacker) Anthony Barr's a projected top five, top 10 draft pick," Sarkisian said. "(Linebacker Eric) Kendricks in the middle was the leading tackler in the conference a year ago. They've got some big defensive tackles. That is something in this game that is gonna be interesting to watch, is how they attack us up front and then what we do to try to neutralize their defensive front seven."

Sankey has been a revelation for the Huskies this season, and is 391 yards shy of Corey Dillon's single-season school rushing record. He'll certainly get his opportunities to break it, as Sarkisian has called for him to carry the ball at least 23 times in all but two games this season.

"We're gonna lean on him again Friday night, there's no secret about that," Sarkisian said. "He's in great physical condition, (and) I think he's in tremendous mental condition. When you carry the ball like that, you have to be mentally strong, mentally tough to do that, and Bishop is unbelievable at it. He embraces the workload.

"I'm hopeful as we come out of this game Friday night, he starts to get a little bit more of the recognition nationally because I think he's a tremendous player. We block well for him, but then he also makes a lot of things happen, makes a lot of people miss in tight quarters."

One of the players who has blocked well for Sankey is 6-foot-6 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who will be a key in Washington's gameplan against UCLA.

"I think everyone wants to look at just sheer numbers and number of catches, but quite honestly I think Austin's playing really good football right now. We don't have the No. 3 leading rusher in America on accident," Sarkisian said. "We've got a really physical tight end who's blocking extremely well, who's dedicated himself to that. ... In games like this on Friday night, we're gonna need Austin to play well. We're gonna need him to make his catches, and we're gonna need to block well like he's done for us all year."

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