Oct. 17, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - That symbolic mountain Steve Sarkisian has his Huskies climbing, one weekly step at a time, sure is affording a nice view.
Washington has won nine of its last 10 games, including its first bowl victory in a decade last December.
The Dawgs are 5-1 for the first time since 2001, and 3-0 in the conference for the first time since 1997. And they are ranked 22nd in this week's Associated Press poll. It's UW's first national ranking in two years, since after it upset then-No. 3 USC in September 2009, and only its second time ranked in eight seasons.
"Oh, yeah, my grandma likes it. She likes all that stuff," quarterback Keith Price said of Gail Manuel, who's been coming up from his native Southern California to cheer Price's 21 touchdown passes through six games.
"It's not really me, though."
Washington is at its highest national ranking since early October 2003 entering Saturday's 5 p.m. showdown at No. 7 Stanford (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12) for first place in the league's North division (ABC television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here at GoHuskies.com with another live game chat from the sidelines).
"(The) perception's changing, I guess, of who we are," Sarkisian said of a program that was 0-12 just 2 ½ seasons ago.
There is progress at every turn. From Price's supersonic start to 2011 to running back Chris Polk's continued romping, to an improving defense that has gained confidence after consecutive blowout wins, plus the renovation on Husky Stadium that begins three weeks from Monday.
Is there where Sarkisian envisioned his program would be halfway through his third year at Washington?
"I guess it's relatively close," the former championship coordinator at USC said Monday. "I like our brand of football. I like the way we're playing. I know there is so much room for improvement, though. That's why I'm so hesitant to say `This is exactly where I wanted to be.'"
Yes, the Huskies can improve -- and will have to this week to beat Heisman Trophy candidate Andrew Luck's passing and Stanford's rugged play on both sides of the ball.
Washington is seeking more consistency in its pass rush and pass defense overall following a 52-24 win over Colorado last weekend. The Huskies allowed CU a 70-yard scoring drive to begin the game, then allowed just 199 yards over the final 3 ½ quarters in a season-best performance.
But those Buffaloes are new to the Pac-12 and in last place at 1-6 overall. Stanford's 14-game winning streak is the nation's longest. It has won its last nine games by 25 or more points. And Luck has been sacked just twice all season while throwing 181 passes.
"We have a chance to get better even from here. I don't feel like we've reached our potential," Sarkisian said of his young Huskies. "And I think we've got a group of kids that are very hungry and a coaching staff that is diligent in their efforts to work at this and put our players in the best position to be successful.
"What I am really proud of is how close we are as a team. I think this is the closest team we've had in three years. We're very family oriented. We stick together. We hang together. ... From the first year until now we've grown and gotten better at our ability to finish ball games in the fourth quarter. And I think that is due in part (to the fact) that we're very close and we count on one another."
As for that mountain, it gets steeper Saturday. The Huskies are heading on the road against a team that has beaten them 34-14 in Palo Alto in 2009 and 41-0 in Seattle last season.
"We got smashed," Price said .
Physicality, the "brand" of football Sarkisian emphasizes and the team began displaying in earnest soon after last October's loss to Stanford, will be a renewed theme all week.
"They've dedicated themselves to being a physical football team. I think we have as well," the coach said. "We'll find out how far away we are on Saturday."
Despite what outsiders may think of their chances, the Huskies are taking this trip to Stanford as what it is, and nothing more: Another step on the program's climb back to championships.
"I think it's a step that we have to take. It's one that's obviously not on flat ground. It's a challenging step for sure," Sarkisian said. "But we're not up the summit by any means. It's a step we need to take if we want to go up, and a challenging one. But I don't think it's a gigantic step.
"The challenge is to play to the perception of ourselves."
QUICK HITS: Sarkisian and Price both said the QB's ankle he hurt Oct. 1 at Utah remains less than fully healthy but that it is improving each day. Price and freshman WR Kasen Williams, who was limited to punt returns only against Colorado while recovering from his sprained ankle, both ran smoothly through the one-hour practice Monday. Sarkisian said he expects Williams to be return to receiving duties at Stanford. ... Price is tied with Boise State's Kellen Moore for second in nation in touchdown passes. They are one behind Baylor's Robert Griffin III. ... Price is fifth in the country in pass efficiency (177.9), behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, Griffin, Luck and Moore. ... Despite its recent success, Stanford is just 7-21 against UW since 1977. ... Saturday's ABC telecast will be shown regionally across the country. Check GoHuskies.com later this week to view the coverage map and see if ABC will be carrying Washington-Stanford in your area, beyond the West Coast.