By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
PHOENIX – Keith Price walked behind Bishop Sankey as they exited the Huskies’ Alaska Airlines charter jet at Sky Harbor International Airport. The quarterback squinted into the bright, desert sun.
Price had just flown over Sun Devil Stadium in neighboring Tempe late Friday afternoon. And when he sees the field on which he and his 20th-ranked Huskies (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) will meet Arizona State (4-2, 2-1) Saturday at 3 p.m. -- on Pac-12 Networks television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive game chat -- the captain sees opportunity.
Opportunity that remains intact.
|Three Keys For UW at Arizona State|
|The Huskies’ defense has been talking since March about forming constrictive “cages” around quarterbacks with a coordinated pass rush, to prevent outside rollouts and big plays. UW’s front mostly did that while getting 15 sacks in the first five games, but then allowed Oregon’s Marcus Mariota free for 440-plus total yards last week. If the Dawgs can cage Arizona State’s fast quarterback Taylor Kelly, it would affect his recently hot throwing and thus disrupt an offense that is averaging 44 points per game.|
|Defend both shoulders|
|Kelly’s specialties are back-shoulder throws to ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong. Marcus Peters has been the Huskies’ most aggressive defensive back in pass coverage this season. He, Greg Ducre, Cleveland Wallace, Tre Watson and anyone else UW sends to cover outside must stay even with – not too far ahead of -- the Sun Devils’ wide outs. And they need to be able to stop when the receivers do, to be in position to bat down Kelly’s tricky throws.|
|Stay on the Sankey Express|
|Quarterback Keith Price has been knocked around the last two games, but Bishop Sankey has kept plowing on as the nation’s leading rusher. Now Sankey is facing a defense that has been prone to allowing big runs outside this season. Look for play-caller Steve Sarkisian to send Sankey at ASU’s edges early and often.|
Despite consecutive, grueling losses by three at then-No.-5 Stanford and last week at home to second-ranked Oregon, a 45-24 loss that was 31-24 with 14 minutes left, Price sees so much still out there for Washington to accomplish this season.
“We know our goal. We want to finish the season 10-2,” Price said. “And hopefully we can have an outside chance of making a run at the Pac-12 championship.”
Then the 11th-most accurate passer in the country through six games chuckled and said, “You never know what can happen in the Pac-12.”
Washington follows this test at ASU with home games against California and Colorado, each of which are so far winless in conference play. Many expect Oregon to remain unbeaten and reach the BCS championship game. That would elevate the No. 2 finisher in the Pac-12 into one of the other three BCS bowls in January.
“In my estimation the University of Washington one of best teams in the conference. We haven’t played anybody more talented than them,” said Arizona State coach Todd Graham, whose team has beaten Sacramento State (55-0), Wisconsin (32-30), USC (62-41) and Colorado (54-13) and lost to Stanford (42-28) and Notre Dame (37-34).
“We are going against one of the best teams in the Pac-12. Our guys know how talented Washington is. They are coming off two tough losses to Stanford and Oregon, two of the best teams in the country.
“To be honest with you, the only things that have beaten them to this points have been special teams against Stanford, and against Oregon the thing that got them beat was (two) turnovers.”
Yet coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t talking about how good his Huskies may still be, or what they may still accomplish. That is getting waaaay ahead of the Huskies’ most pressing task: slowing down dynamic quarterback Taylor Kelley and an Arizona State offense that is averaging 44 points and 497 yards per game.
“There are a lot of weapons. And they do it up tempo,” Sarkisian said. “So we have our work cut out for us.”
UW spent this practice week trying to revive its pass rush and being physical outside with ASU’s receivers.
After 15 sacks in the first five games, 12 of those from its front four defensive linemen, the Huskies had just one last week against Oregon. It came in the second half, after quarterback Marcus Mariota had most of the game to find third and fourth receivers en route to 366 yards passing.
Now, senior co-captain Hau’oli Kikaha and the Dawgs’ D knows containing and affecting Kelly with what they call “the cage” around the quarterback is a key to being 5-2 by Saturday night instead of 4-3. Kelly is seventh in the nation with an average of 355 yards of total offense per game. That’s just behind Mariota, most folks’ favorite so far to win the Heisman Trophy.
“He can throw again. Another dual-threat quarterback,” Kikaha, the defensive end who leads UW with 3½ sacks, said of Kelly. “Maintaining ‘the cage’ is as vital as ever. Obviously that was a point of emphasis for us, so we’ve got to continue improving on that.”
Kelly has burned defenses this season escaping pressure and by repeatedly completing back-shoulder throws to wide receiver Jaelen Strong along the sideline. Graham says Kelly and Strong spend 10 extra minutes after every practice working on those tricky throws.
Washington’s secondary, especially cornerbacks Marcus Peters, Greg Ducre and Cleveland Wallace, will need to maintain stride-for-stride coverage and then stop when Strong halts his route. That’s the best way combat the tough-to-defend, back-shoulder throw.
“He’s mobile,” safety Sean Parker, who leads the Huskies with three interceptions, said of Kelly. “He’s mastered the back-shoulder throw, so we’ve been getting ready for that.”
“We need to go back to what we need to do: tackle, and stay on top in the passing game.”
Offensively for UW, Sankey is the nation’s leading rusher at 899 yards and 149.8 yards per game. He will run against an Arizona State defense that has been victimized by big gains on the perimeter. The Sun Devils are ranked 75th in the country allowing an average of 168.8 yards on the ground.
“He’s really good. Sankey is a bruising type runner,” said Graham, whose background is on defense. “He is going to make you tackle him. That’s what makes him good.”
The Huskies’ offensive line has plowed huge running lanes for Sankey this season but has not kept Price from getting hit hard in either of the last two weeks. It is likely to make its first lineup change here Saturday. Erik Kohler will probably make his first start of 2013 in his return from a foot injury, at left guard to replace injured Dexter Charles. The two-year starter made his season debut last week when Charles hurt his shoulder against Oregon.
It would be Kohler’s first start since he was at right tackle Sept. 8, 2012, at Louisiana State. In the first half that night, he tore a knee ligament and his quadriceps muscle. He missed the final 11 games of 2012 then was back in April at center in spring practice. Then in June, he injured his foot. He was in a walking boot through August.
Kohler’s experience came in handy last week when he picked up Oregon’s inside blitz to free Sankey his 60-yard touchdown run on fourth and 1. It be useful again here Saturday against Arizona State’s veteran, formidable defensive line anchored by 305-pound defensive tackle Will Sutton.
If the defense affects Kelly, if the secondary plays sticky coverage and Sankey keeps on being Breakout Bishop, the Huskies may take that first, resumed step to fulfilling Price’s conviction that all the season’s goals remain in play.
“Oh, yeah, definitely, there’s still a lot to play for,” he said. “We could still possibly go to a BCS game, which would be great. I don’t know when the last time was we went to a BCS game.”
That was the 2001 Rose Bowl against Purdue.
How long ago was that? Marques Tuiasosopo, Price’s current quarterbacks coach, was that game’s most valuable player.