Sarkisian looks for answers after USC's shocking loss to UW

LOS ANGELES (AP) Steve Sarkisian and his assistants went recruiting on the morning after No. 17 Southern California's stunning 17-12 loss to Washington.

The coach realizes his selling job is a bit tougher, both in high school kids' living rooms and his own locker room.

The talent-stacked Trojans (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) are essentially out of the national title picture after that ugly loss at the Coliseum, and a trip to mighty Notre Dame looms next week.

''I feel bad about it,'' Sarkisian said Friday. ''I'm hurt about it. My job is to try to figure that out, to get the best out of our players every time we take the field.''

Sarkisian's soul-searching was mixed with optimism Friday when he attempted to explain how the unranked Huskies handled USC so comfortably. Washington's defense was dominant, holding Cody Kessler without a touchdown pass for the first time in a year and limiting the Trojans to one fourth-quarter TD.

A night of film study revealed no answers.

''We didn't play the way I know we're capable of playing, and so my job is to try to figure that out,'' Sarkisian said. ''It's easy to look at the film and say, `Hey, we should have run it, we should have thrown it, we should have blitzed more.' But the reality is it was bigger than that, and how we figure that out is the challenge. ... It's a huge, huge question.''

Sarkisian's future is already hanging on that question.

After just 18 games, a significant portion of USC's infamously demanding fan base has already turned on the former Pete Carroll assistant who won nine games in his first year before landing the nation's top recruiting class last winter. Athletic director Pat Haden won't panic quite so quickly, but the type of loss that will send the Trojans plummeting out of the Top 25 can't be excused.

USC dropped to 12-6 during Sarkisian's tenure, with four of those losses to significant underdogs. Even by the warped standards and impossibly high expectations bestowed each season on the once-mighty Trojans, that's an embarrassment to Sarkisian, who realizes the opportunity and talent at his disposal.

''This team is not about going astray or losing the messaging from us or from anyone else,'' Sarkisian said. ''This team wants to win. It's not about `want to.' So I'm not as concerned about that as I am our performance, quite honestly. These guys are in a good place, and they're going to be OK.''

USC has played four of its five games at home this season, but the Trojans followed up two blowouts of Sun Belt Conference opponents with losses to two teams from the Pac-12 North - supposedly the league's weaker division. The Trojans have lost consecutive home games for the first time since 2001, early in Pete Carroll's remarkable tenure.

Inconsistency makes the struggles even more baffling: USC's defense was shredded by Stanford for 41 points last month, but the Trojans' offense was flattened by Washington.

Sarkisian, who ceded play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Clay Helton this season, essentially acknowledged USC didn't run the ball enough. The Coliseum crowd, already annoyed by the Thursday drive to downtown Los Angeles, booed the USC offense.

''It's a hard one to answer,'' Sarkisian said when asked why the Trojans called so many pass plays. ''When you're in games and you're trying to find balance and you're trying to make it all work, we're calling the stuff that we think is best for our team. You go back and you look at the tape, and hindsight is 20-20. You think, `Man, if we could have ran it here or ran it there.'''

Sarkisian said Kessler was ''not at his best.'' The senior third-year starter passed for just 165 yards with two interceptions, and he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 13 games since Oct. 4, 2014.

Sarkisian said he didn't call a team meeting Friday morning, giving the day off to his players as scheduled. They'll go back to work early next week in preparation for the trip to South Bend and a stretch of three straight games against ranked opponents.

''This is a great challenge for us,'' Sarkisian said. ''I feel really, really good about where we're headed as a program, and I feel great about the team that we have.''