By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
PASADENA, Calif. – Bishop Sankey, blue “Beats” headphones draped around his neck, smile on his face, was already stretching his valuable running legs.
Twenty-five hours before the Huskies play UCLA inside the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2009, the nation’s third-leading rusher did some chop steps during Washington’s walkthrough Thursday evening. Then he made a cut across the 25-yard line of the famed field, which he was standing on for the first time.
More moves like that with the ball here Friday night could lead to UW taking its long-awaited next step.
The Huskies (6-3, 3-3) see this huge chance in this hallowed stadium as an opportunity to take that next step they’ve talked about all year, that large leap past the seven-win seasons they’ve had in each of the last three years.
As quarterback Keith Price said when this month began: “We understand we can't have seven wins (again this season), you know what I mean?”
|Three Keys For UW at UCLA|
|See How He Runs|
|Bishop Sankey was already trying out the Rose Bowl grass Thursday night with cuts in the lush, open field. Expect the nation’s No. 3 rusher to try many more of those Friday night. UCLA has had issues this season stopping the run (80th in the nation in rush defense, approaching the bottom third of the Football Bowl Subdivision). Early success from Sankey will allow UW to control the game’s pace, and to keep Brett Hundley and the offense off the field.|
|The Huskies learned last month against Oregon’s Marcus Mariota that dropping seven and eight into pass coverage may not be the best way to defend an accurate-yet-elusive quarterback. Now they face another one in UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But Hundley plays behind a young offensive line that has had its issues this season. Expect UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to dial up many more blitzes against than he did against Mariota..|
|Absorb Blows. Stay The Course|
|Steve Sarkisian has preached all the week the need for the Huskies to expect big plays by the Bruins -- then be ready to make an immediate response. They did it at Stanford, not so much at Arizona State. As much as any game this season, UW’s ability to be mentally tough when the home team succeeds will go a long way towards a huge win against the No. 13 team in the country.|
The Huskies’ goal of a 4-0 November includes conquering No. 13 UCLA (7-2, 4-2) Friday beginning at 6 p.m. on ESPN2, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive game chat from the sidelines.
“This month is about the next step, quite honestly,” coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We think we have a great opportunity to close out the season in a way we are capable of doing it. And this is the next game on the schedule to make that happen.”
Sarkisian has another team goal for this month beyond going 4-0: Having a plus-10 turnover margin.
He is convinced the latter goal will accomplish the former.
“It is a lofty goal, but one I think we can achieve,” Sarkisian said.
The Huskies began the month by forcing three turnovers – including its first two turnovers for touchdown this season – while losing one last week in the 59-7 rout of Colorado. They play at Oregon State (7-3, 5-2) and its top-ranked passing offense in the nation next week, then host Washington State (4-5, 2-4) in the Apple Cup the day after Thanksgiving.
The last time Washington has won on the road against a team as highly ranked as these Bruins: The 2002 Apple Cup, when they upset third-ranked WSU in the memorable, triple-overtime game in Pullman. That was the next-to-last game of Rick Neuheisel’s coaching tenure at UW.
To get the big, program-turning win, which would be there first over UCLA here since 1995, the Huskies are going to have to be fresher – and mentally stronger – than they were the last time they went on the road. That was last month at Arizona State.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought ball game. That’s a good football team in UCLA,” Sarkisian said of the Bruins, who have lost only to Stanford and Oregon and are coming off a 31-26 win at Arizona. “It won’t be an easy environment to play in on a Friday night.”
The Huskies aren’t daunted by the talent UCLA has: Brett Hundley, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback; and Myles Jack, the playmaking freshman linebacker from Bellevue High School in the Seattle suburbs who last week made his college debut as a fill-in running back and bolted for 120 yards on six, decisive carries to beat Arizona.
“UCLA, they’ve got good athletes,” said Huskies senior safety and co-captain Sean Parker, who like 38 other Dawgs arrived in their native southern California Thursday. “But we’ve got good athletes, too.
“We think we match up well with them.”
So the delta could be in the mental game. That beginning-to-end focus and resiliency to withstand adversity that Sarkisian wants to see Friday from his Huskies showed up most this season at Stanford Oct. 5. That night Washington fell behind, kept giving up big kickoff returns – then rallied in the final quarter behind a brilliant Price. The Dawgs came perhaps a catch overturned by replay from beating the current front-runner for the Rose Bowl.
The Huskies lacked that focus and resiliency in the next two games. In the final quarter against Oregon, UW allowed a 31-24 game to become a 45-24 loss. A week later, at Arizona State, the Sun Devils rolled to a 28-point second quarter and sent UW to a baffling, 53-24 loss.
“I think, quite honestly, that we’ve played two poor quarters this season,” Sarkisian said. “You look at the fourth quarter against Oregon and you look at the second quarter against Arizona State, we didn’t play very good football. And in the end, that got us.
“I would say the rest of the season … we’ve been pretty sound.”
Price sure has been. UW’s career record holder for passing accuracy is completing 65.4 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns against four interceptions this season. He ran for two scores last week while passing for two, as well. He tied USC’s Carson Palmer for 10th in Pac-10 history with 72 career touchdown throws. Price is seven behind John Elway for seventh place.
The Huskies rolled up 628 yards last week against a Colorado defense ranked 104th out of 123 FBS teams in pass defense. It was the fourth time this season they’ve gained 600-plus in a game. They’d gained that much six times ever before this season.
But UCLA is not CU.
The Bruins are third in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 213.8 yards per game through the air. (Washington is second at 209.7 yards passing allowed). But UCLA has been victimized by the run this season; it is ninth in the conference and 80th in the nation surrendering 177.2 yards per game on the ground.
Better believe Sarkisian is going to probe that apparent vulnerability by giving Sankey ample chances to run. The junior, averaging 145 yards rushing per game, was named Thursday as one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award given annually to the nation’s top running back. The three finalists will be announced Nov. 25.
Washington’s defense knows UCLA has had issues along its offensive line this season. Yet Hundley has often won games while escaping pressure with his legs. He has hit on 68.5 percent of his throws, the best rate in the conference. Hundley has also rushed for 487 yards through nine games, third-most among Pac-12 quarterbacks and eight yards fewer than Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
So the Huskies’ task is clear.
“They do have a pretty young offensive line,” UW middle linebacker John Timu said, “so we need to try to rattle them a little bit and see what happens.”
Translation: Expect the Huskies to blitz, to apply heat beyond sack-happy ends Hau’oli Jamora (a team-leading six) and former UCLA signee Josh Shirley (five, including two with a forced fumble for a touchdown last week).
When the Huskies’ defense faced Mariota and Oregon last month, they chose to mostly drop seven and eight men into coverage. With no pass rush affecting him, Mariota was brilliant – and picked UW apart.
Sarkisian acknowledged this week “we are going to have to mix it up” against Hundley. Watch early in the game to see how many white jerseys rush the quarterback on passing downs. Chances are it will be more than the four defensive linemen.
Chances are even greater that this game will come down to which team has a stronger, longer will.
“We have to be mentally prepared for a physical football game – from a physical standpoint, and also from a mental standpoint, the mental toughness that’s going to be needed in this game,” Sarkisian said. “Because it is going to go back and forth. They are going to make their plays. They are going to make tackles. We have to be able to move on to that next play and be focused on the task at hand.
“So for us the next step is doing that. It’s remaining focused for 60 minutes against a really good football team on the road.”