Oct. 3, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Keith Price has been leading the nation in touchdown passes.
He's been extending plays, deftly avoiding sacks. He's been zipping dart-like passes while dragging two sprained knees and now a twisted ankle through four wins in five starts. It's the best debut for a new Huskies quarterback since Cody Pickett went 4-0 when taking over in 2001.
So, yeah, Price deserves a day off. Or three.
Like a care package from the Red Cross, the bye week arrived for wounded Washington (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) on Monday.
No Dawgs are more battered than their quarterback.
Price stood with his helmet kicked up off the back and top of his head as he watched backup Nick Montana run the offense during Monday's short, indoor practice. So many starters got rest - Chris Polk, Cort Dennison, Senio Kelemete -- it was tough to tell which was the first-team and which was the second on offense and defense.
"Keith will get shut down," coach Steve Sarkisian said before the approximately 60-minute workout, which came 12 days before UW's next game at home against Colorado (1-4, 0-1).
Sarkisian said he traditionally likes his quarterbacks to take breathers during bye weeks.
"It is just a chance to relax for a quarterback. Playing that position in our system and in these ballgames can be stressful mentally as well as physically," he said. "I like to shut them down."
Price says his right knee, which he sprained while throwing for three touchdowns against Eastern Washington in the opener Sept. 3, is "100 percent" now. But he was wearing a brace on his balky left knee for the second consecutive week last Saturday at Utah. Then late in the first half he twisted his ankle. He got an impromptu tape wrap on that at the bench then went right back in for the next series.
"For all the right reasons," Sarkisian said, "Keith will be pretty limited this week."
The last time UW had a bye, last November, Jake Locker insisted on practicing. Locker had a broken rib at the time and hadn't played since a punishing loss to Stanford. He wanted to cleanse himself of that defeat and get right back at it during his bye, to atone for a bad game.
Price is coming off anything but a bad game. Again.
The redshirt sophomore threw three more touchdown passes last weekend in the 31-14 win at Utah, leaving him with 17 scoring throws on the season. That's one behind Baylor's Robert Griffin III for the national lead, and it's tied with Locker from 2010 for seventh-most over an entire year in 120 seasons of Huskies football. Price needs 12 scoring passes over the final seven regular-season games to break Pickett's single-season record from 2002.
His current rate of 3.4 scoring passes per game is more than 50 percent higher than Brock Huard's season record of 2.27 per game over 11 contests in 1997. If Price were to maintain his pace of TD throws, he'd finish this season with 41.
Despite the new ankle ache, Price finished 22 for 30 passing at Utah to increase his season completion percentage to 68.3 percent. The Washington record for a season is 65 percent, by Steve Pelluer in 1983.
So, yeah, maybe he deserves a breather during a bye.
"I think he's playing great football. I was on the phone with a couple other coaches in the conference on some different issues, and I don't think it's just us seeing it," Sarkisian said. "Competing through injury, the leadership he's provided this team -- I couldn't have asked for more than what he's given us through five weeks of the season."
Yet Price isn't satisfied.
"No, I have to keep going," Price said when reminded of his 17 touchdown passes outside the Huskies' locker room at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday night. "I have to get better."
As with almost every quarterback - especially ones in their first five weeks in the full-time job - decision-making is an on-going emphasis.
Sarkisian and other coaches have marveled at Price's ability to extend plays with his elusiveness while maintaining his focus downfield on receivers breaking free for big plays. The flip side of that knack for extending plays is that he can sometimes extend them too far.
Sarkisian pointed out a third-and-14 play late in the first quarter at Utah. The score was tied and a holding penalty had backed up Washington to its own 16. Utah's pass rush flew in on Price, who wildly dodged one defender and stepped up toward the line. Rather than throw the ball away and concede the play failed, Price tried to re-set in traffic and locate another receiver. He was sacked and lost the ball.
Though Huskies tackle Erik Kohler recovered the fumble to keep the game tied, Sarkisian noted the lesson Price will learn.
"He's scrambling around, and it's not there. It's that fine line of having that ability of throwing the ball away and not taking that sack-fumble. We could have easily turned that ball over there," Sarkisian said. "So that's going to be his (task), to find that area of, 'Where can I play and play at a high level of extending these plays, and where is it too much? Where is it trying too hard?'
"That's going to be his biggest challenge moving forward -- as well as getting healthy."
Sarkisian considered giving Price a head start on this week of rest Saturday night when Washington led 31-7 midway through the fourth quarter. But Montana remained on the sidelines.
"We'd been making a point and one of the challenges we talked about was finishing the game on offense. Our inability to do that a few ballgames this year could have potentially cost us the game," Sarkisian said. "So I wanted to keep Keith in the game for that reason, to keep that mindset that we need to finish games. When we have a chance to put a team away and really chew up the clock, put points on the board and end a ball game. That's why I left him in the game."
Price led the Huskies to the Utah 19 before a 15-yard personal foul penalty ruined the drive.
"Nick is getting plenty of good reps in practice. And he will get his opportunity in a game," Sarkisian said. "We are going to need him before the season is done."
QUICK HITS: Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt liked what they saw from DT Semisi Tokolahi in the approximately 30 snaps he played at Utah. He helped limit Utah to 17 yards on 23 rushes in the 300-pound junior's first extended game work since he broke his ankle in early December's Apple Cup. Sarkisian said he hopes Tokolahi will be able to play more against Colorado. ... X-rays on WR Kasen Williams' ankle he turned at Utah showed "nothing serious," Sarkisian said. ... UW announced the Colorado game Oct. 15 will kickoff at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time and be televised regionally by ROOT Sports. The Oct. 22 game at Stanford, also 2-0 in the Pac-12 North, will start at 5:00 p.m. ABC and/or ESPN will carry that one. The starting time for the home game with Arizona Oct. 29 will likely be announced on Oct. 17.