Oct. 14, 2011
NOTE: The 520 bridge will close in both directions at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday (after the UW-Colorado game).
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Steve Sarkisian was assessing Colorado, Washington's opponent upon return from its bye week.
But what the third-year coach was actually telling more about was his own UW team (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12), which is off to its best start since 2006.
"To me they are eerily similar to who we were a couple years ago," Sarkisian said this week of the Buffaloes (1-5, 0-2 ). "I think they have talent on their football team. I think they are well-coached. I think they play hard and they are trying to find a way to get over the hump and to win some of these tight ball games."
He was referring to Colorado's overtime loss to California and its late loss to Washington State.
He was also, indirectly referring to what Saturday's 12:30 p.m. game at Husky Stadium -- on ROOT Sports television regionally, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another live game chat -- represents.
It's a chance for Sarkisian's rising program to evolve some more.
The Buffaloes, new to the conference this year and with first-year coach Jon Embree, have lost 21 consecutive games outside the state of Colorado. That dates to 2007 and includes the `07 Independence Bowl in Louisiana. Their only win so far this season came last month over Colorado State at the neutral site of Denver.
Beating CU after the Huskies' impressive, 31-14 romp at Utah in their previous game Oct. 1 would show Washington is gaining some of the consistency Sarkisian has been seeking for years. It would show his players are focused on themselves, on doing their jobs correctly and repeatedly regardless of the opponent or game situation.
Yet Sarkisian cautioned the Huskies haven't necessarily left behind the growing pains Colorado is currently enduring just yet.
"I'm not sure if we've turned the corner, quite honestly," UW's coach said of his team that has won eight of its last nine.
"It's an ongoing challenge, how your team plays. We've had moments where we really play the way we want to be playing and the style with which we want to play. And there are moments when we don't (such as the 30-27 win in the opener over Eastern Washington). That's the battle from week to week.
"But I think we've found much more consistency in our style of play, of who we are. ... That was one of our goals coming into this season. So I didn't think even after year two we had gotten to that point because of some of our ups and downs. I didn't think we opened the year the way we needed to against Eastern. But I think the last couple of weeks, we are really playing the way we want to be playing."
The one Husky really, REALLY playing the way they want him to be is Keith Price. The redshirt sophomore has thrown 17 touchdown passes, tied for second-most in the nation, against just four interceptions. His completion rate of 68.3 percent is well ahead of the UW season record of 65 percent by Steve Pelluer in 1983.
Price benefitted more than any other Husky from having last week off. He rested two, previously sprained knees. And his sprained ankle, while not fully healthy, is far better than it was when he limped through another three-TD-throws night at Utah.
Price has been wearing a pink ribbon this week during national breast cancer awareness month. His aunt, Sylvia Manuel, survived breast cancer.
"Hopefully I can get some pink towels in here so I can wear them in the game," Price said. "My great grandmother had it, too. She's passed away. So it's very important to me."
Sylvia Manuel lives in the Seattle area and will again be at Husky Stadium to cheer on her nephew - and bask in the glow of his constant smile, even on the field during plays.
"The beauty of Keith is, he is who he is," Sarkisian said. "Nothing is ever too big for him, in the sense that he can't handle the arena that he's in, whether it's the stadium that he's in, or the media attention, or the lack thereof, one way or the other. He doesn't change. That's the beauty of him. He has a calming demeanor. He's fun-loving.
"And still, through the end of it all, his most redeeming quality is his competitiveness. Those things keep showing up for us."
Asked if he's coached a quarterback with the persona of Price, the former USC quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator thought through his stable of NFL first-round draft picks and shook his head.
"I haven't had anyone like him," Sarkisian said. "Maybe the closest is Matt Leinart. ... He was a fiery, emotional guy. Maybe a little more emotional than Keith, but they both loved practice. They come out smiling, having fun. He's probably the closest. But I don't think they are exactly alike."
Price and his Huskies have three keys to getting to 5-1 and 3-0 in the Pac-12 North entering next week's nationally televised showdown at seventh-ranked Stanford:
Repel blitzing Buffaloes.
Crash through Colorado's many screen passes.
Don't let the bruised Buffs stay in the game through turnovers.
Colorado has allowed a Pac-12-high 14 touchdown passes, a large part of the reason it is 11th in the league in surrendering 33.3 points per game. But the Buffs use a variety of what Sarkisian calls exotic, NFL-like blitzes, especially on third downs, to help their secondary. That is why CU is tied with division front-runners Arizona State and Stanford with 17 sacks.
"When they rush, they rush hard. They are really trying to get to the quarterback," Sarkisian said. "It's a tribute to them."
It's also a challenge to Washington's offensive line, which has been inconsistent this season. Communication will be important Saturday, and Sarkisian plus senior left tackle Senio Kelemete both praised junior center Drew Schaefer this week for how effective his calls have been at the line for protection schemes.
It will also be a challenge for Price. He agrees with his coach that sometimes his knack for extending plays by scrambling leads to unnecessary hits, and has caused almost all of the Huskies' seven turnovers through five games.
"I've got to throw the ball away when I have to. ... All the turnovers have been on me so far," Price said, overestimating by two. "If I can limit that, I think we'll have a good shot."
On defense, the Huskies have been hearing from Sarkisian, coordinator Nick Holt and everybody short of Don James about how they need to rush the quarterback more aggressively. This week that demand comes with a caveat: Rush hard, but with eyes scanning.
The search will be on for Colorado running back Rodney Stewart, who at 5-feet-6 gets lost behind his offensive linemen on the Buffs' many screen plays. Some of the blockers are a foot or more taller than the guy who is second on the Buffaloes with 26 catches in six games.
"They are the best screening team I've seen since I've been here," Washington fifth-year senior middle linebacker Cort Dennison said.
The defense's traffic cop says his Huskies need to read their offensive-line and backfield keys especially well. That means at least some of the rushing Dawgs must follow CU's pass blockers if they suddenly start running toward the sideline and let pass rushers in free. That means they must resist the urge to believe they were just given a clear path to the quarterback for no reason.
In essence, it's not about Colorado. It's about the Huskies taking care of their jobs. Their responsibilities. Themselves.
It's the mantra Sarkisian has preached since his first season at UW in 2009.
Saturday, with a conference opponent trying to get to Washington's level for a change, the it's-all-about-us thinking may come in handy.