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USC versus Washington just another game? It's not that simple

 USC versus Washington just another game? It's not that simple
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian, right, taks with Athletic Director Pat Haden before a game against Idaho on Sept. 12. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

USC Coach Steve Sarkisian and much of his staff spent the week fielding questions regarding their feelings about playing against Washington.

The answer: No big deal. Just another game.

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If only it were that simple.

When Sarkisian left Washington for USC in December 2013, many Huskies fans vociferously said good riddance to a coach who made a winless program competitive but failed to win more than nine games in any of his five seasons.

So if No. 17 USC is in position to make a high-scoring statement against the Huskies on Thursday night at the Coliseum, look for Sarkisian — known by detractors in Seattle as "Seven-Win Sark" — to not let up.

If Sarkisian requires added motivation, consider:

Before USC Athletic Director Pat Haden hired Sarkisian, he interviewed Chris Petersen, who had turned Boise State into a perennial contender. Petersen was regarded by some USC fans as a popular choice to succeed the fired Lane Kiffin and break ties to the Pete Carroll era.

Petersen eventually replaced Sarkisian at Washington and appeared to be universally welcomed by the Huskies faithful.

Sarkisian has repeatedly said that he was proud of his experience in Washington and that it helped him grow as a coach. Emotion, he added, would not be part of the equation Thursday night.

"I know that I want to win — just like every other football game," he said. "So I think my feelings are really clear."

Petersen knows firsthand about coaching against a recent employer. After leading Washington to an 8-6 record in 2014, he coached against Boise State in this season's opener.

Washington lost, 16-13, at Boise, Idaho

With Sarkisian about to face the program he resurrected at Washington, Petersen was asked this week what it was like to coach against Boise State.

"I think it was a little bit different going back to Boise," he said, adding, "I think one thing is when you have a connection to the people that were there."

Sarkisian is not scheduled to return to Seattle with USC until 2016. In the short term, he is intent on keeping the Trojans on a winning track after their road victory at Arizona State.

USC rebounded from its loss to Stanford by forcing four turnovers that led to touchdowns in a 42-14 victory at Tempe, Ariz.

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The turnover torrent might continue against a Washington team that committed five in a 30-24 loss against California and features a freshman quarterback, Jake Browning.

USC's offense improved dramatically on third down and continued to show big-play ability in its last game, but the Trojans still have several areas of concern.

Though defensive linemen Delvon Simmons forced a fumble against Arizona State, the Trojans remain in search of a consistent pass rush. USC also must reduce penalties and would like to restart its running game.

Arizona State's defensive scheme invited a pass-heavy emphasis, but the Trojans rushed for only 76 yards and averaged 2.4 yards per carry.

Asked if the Trojans had yet showed the running game they were capable of, junior tailback Justin Davis said, "Not even close."

"We have the talent and O-line," he said. "We have the potential, it's just up to us to make our assignments right and jell together as a group."

Washington leads the Pac-12 Conference in total defense and rushing defense, giving up only 104.5 yards rushing per game.

"It's always fun when our coaches are telling us, 'This is the best defense we faced all year,'" USC offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn said. "It seems like they say that every week, but it's just fun. It gets us going and we're out here fired up to run on these guys."

Washington has not defeated USC since 2010, when the Huskies beat the Trojans for the second year in a row on a late field goal.

Sarkisian was Washington's coach for both victories over the Trojans, for whom he was a longtime assistant.

Now, with a staff that includes five former Washington assistants, he aims to defeat the Huskies.

And do it convincingly.

Twitter : @latimesklein

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