Dec. 21, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
LAS VEGAS - Wearing a team hoodie, a knit cap and a smile, Steve Sarkisian played catch with Keith Price during the Huskies' final, walkthrough practice before its third bowl in as many seasons. Coach and quarterback tossed casually on the same Sam Boyd Stadium field where Sarkisian quarterbacked Brigham Young to a Western Athletic Conference championship in 1996.
Their game of catch Friday evening was hours after Sarkisian's final, pre-bowl play on words -- one more telling than most know.
"A lot our guys when they started playing, as we jokingly say, they were puppies," UW's coach said at the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas pregame press conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
"I think they've grown up to be Dawgs."
None more than Price.
Washington's record-setting QB in 2011 turned frustrated, soul-searching, criticized passer for much of 2012 doesn't need this game to feel good about himself again.
No matter how this Saturday here against Boise State turns out to end his humbling season, he's still got his self confidence. And perspective.
"Things are going to get better. Trust me," he said.
"I wouldn't change this year for anything, not even the Heisman Trophy, because this taught me. It's bettered me as a person."
He's also got a school full of kids that is pumped about him, regardless of how this MAACO Bowl Las Vegas ends. Price has an internship lined up beginning next month in the physical-education classes at Green Lake Elementary school a couple miles from the UW campus.
The redshirt junior is in his fourth year academically. He will earn internship credits by helping lead classes for three hours on each of three days a week.
The kids at Green Lake got an early Christmas present when gym teacher Jamie Matthews spilled the news that the Huskies quarterback was coming to work with them.
So no, no matter what happens against Boise State, a fourth grader is not going to be reminding Price about him trying to do much for parts of this Huskies season, about his spate of turnovers in the middle of it, or his late fumble then interception in overtime at the end of last month's Apple Cup at Washington State.
"Oh, man, I hear all kinds of madness. It's just funny to me," Price said. "You learn a lot of things. I've learned a lot of things this year. But I am going to keep being me. I'm going to continue to do the things I do. I'm going to continue to prepare the way I always prepare."
The smiling "Teeth Price" that outplayed Robert Griffin III in last December's Alamo Bowl has starred just about every season since he first took up football as an eight-year-old quarterback for the youth-league Bellflower Broncos. That was near where he grew up, in Compton, Calif. (Read about it here)
This season was the first time he endured sustained failure. He committed 10 turnovers in three games, all of them losses, before he and the Huskies rallied into November for four consecutive wins - including one over then-No. 7 Oregon State.
"I've matured. I've never had to deal with anything like this. I've never had a setback in athletics. So it is good to see what that feels like," he said. "I'm just thankful. I'm grateful that it happened to me. It's humbling. And God has obviously said, `It's not going to be this easy.'
"I still believe in myself, man. My swagger is right. I'm going to get back to my form, I promise you. ... You are going to see me at my best.
Price has heard so much noise this season it's as if his records of 33 touchdown throws, a 66.9 percentage on completions and a national bowl record seven touchdowns passing and running never happened in 2011. It's as if no one realizes don't realize he completed 61.8 percent of his passes, the fourth-highest percentage in UW history.
That last number is almost astounding considering how many times Price was running for his life behind an offensive line with four first-year starters and was forced to chuck countless throwaways into the bench areas.
In truth, this team will remain Price's through the rematch with Boise State next Aug. 31 when Washington unveils renovated Husky Stadium.
"I know next year when I have a bigger year it's going to come back to `Hey, why wasn't he doing this last year?' But it's a team game," Price said. "You know, I'm not the only one on the team."
What has Price learned most from his most humbling season?
"That I can't do everything," he said. "That's where I messed up, trying to be Superman, trying to do everything.
"These past couple months I'm getting better saying within myself, staying within the offense."
Price's maturation is one of many reasons this season has been rewarding in a behind-the-scenes way for Sarkisian.
"I would summarize it as gratifying. Sometimes your record isn't indicative about how you feel about your team and the work they've put in, and their resiliency in overcoming some adversity," Sarkisian said Friday.
"This has been a gratifying season for me, personally ... because I know what these guys went through in the beginning. The changes that had to be made (especially to a completely remade, vastly improved defense). The leadership that they exuded. I'm very proud of them.
"Would I love to have won more games up to this point? Sure. That goes without saying. But our guys came to work every single day through some of the most difficult times and some of the good times. I feel like we've matured to handle some of the successes we've had, and also some of the failures.
"Hopefully we can put our best foot forward (Saturday) and see what happens."
Sarkisian's offense will again try to use 1,200-yard rusher Bishop Sankey to establish the pace of the game against Boise State. That won't be easy. These aren't the high-flying, pinball-game Broncos of recent seasons. This one is led by a rugged defense that won games as much as the reputed offense did in the first season without departed, record-setting quarterback Kellen Moore.
Boise State's D ranks ninth in the country, allowing 304.7 yards per game.
"It's a different feel," Broncos coach Chris Petersen said Friday. "We're not used to winning games 7-6 - and the defense scores the seven for us (as it did in September against Brigham Young)."
Austin Seferian-Jenkins needs seven yards receiving against that defense to surpass Dave Williams from 1965 for most yards by a tight end in any of UW's 123 seasons of football. Seferian Jenkins has 789 yards on 63 catches, the latter already being a school record for tight ends.
Seferian-Jenkins also already owns the Huskies career records for catches (104) and touchdowns (12) at that position.
He was one of three finalists, and the only sophomore, this month for the John Mackey Award given annually to the nation's top tight end.
Is the 6-foot-6, 260-pound dynamo surprised at all he's done in his second season at UW?
"No, not really," he said. "I worked hard all offseason. And I didn't expect anything less than what I am doing right now. ... And I still think there is a lot of room to grow."
In 2001, he was on his way to Provence, France, off the Mediterranean and adjacent to Italy, to coach a football club team for $500 a month. But then Dan Hawkins called to change his life.
Hawkins had been promoted to the head job at Boise State a year earlier. He had hired Wilcox's position coach at Oregon, Bob Gregory, onto his first staff at Boise State. They wanted Wilcox to join them with the Broncos as a graduate assistant.
Wilcox said yes. His first pay?
"Four-hundred forty dollars. Me and Bryan Harsin," Wilcox said of the former Boise State quarterback who was a GA with him in 2001 and just got hired as a first-time head coach at Arkansas State this month. "We sold pizzas at summer camp to make a little extra. Yep, we were slingin' pizzas."
Petersen succeeded Hawkins leading Boise State and made Wilcox his defensive coordinator in 2006.
Wilcox points out that even without Moore Boise State's offense is still the same. It is explosive, with varying formations, motions and trick plays. It is stingy in giving up sacks and generally mistake free.
That means Huskies linebacker Shaq Thompson, John Timu and Travis Feeney need to again be all over the field. And the secondary led by co-captain Desmond Trufant, a likely high-round NFL draft choice headed to the Senior Bowl after this game, will need to make more aggressive plays on the ball - without the six pass-interference penalties that helped Washington State get back into the Apple Cup after being down 28-10 in the fourth quarter.
"They don't beat themselves," Wilcox said of the Broncos.
So will having coached with them and practicing against this offense give Wilcox and his Huskies an advantage Saturday?
"Not unless Coach `Pete' is going to tell us the plays before they run them," Wilcox said.
"At the end of the day it comes down to executing the calls."
As the fifth selection out of the Pac-12's seven bowl teams, Washington is one of only two teams in the conference to playing a ranked opponent (Oregon is playing seventh-ranked Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl).
So this is yet another opportunity - "a pretty good one," Sarkisian said -- to showcase the program's resurgence against a national power. Boise State is the sixth ranked foe for Washington this season, and first outside the top 11.
"For our guys this is another opportunity to play another great football team that is well coached, on a national stage," the fourth-year coach said.
"That's why these guys chose to come to the University of Washington, to play in these types of games. I think this is a really good matchup for both teams. And it sets the stage for an intriguing nine months of offseason until the rematch at Husky Stadium.
"I think it's pretty cool."