Sept. 3, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Chris Polk was marvelous.
The Huskies' pass defense? Not so much -- until it absolutely had to be.
Two weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery, Polk looked like his usual self. He bulled through tackles and romped for 125 yards on 23 carries Saturday.
In the third quarter, a UW trainer came up to the junior on the sidelines and asked how he was feeling.
"Well, my shoulder is sore," Polk said.
Coach Steve Sarkisian threw up his hands and laughed at that. He said he's never coached a running back who has returned from a knee scope in two weeks and two days.
Polk's medical feat, three touchdown passes from Keith Price despite spraining his knee in his debut as Jake Locker's replacement and Desmond Trufant's interception in the end zone with 29 seconds remaining allowed the Huskies to outlast the flingin' Eastern Washington Eagles 30-27 before 58,088 nervous, sun-baked and ultimately relieved fans at Husky Stadium.
The enduring Huskies had 16 players make their major-college debuts. They had senior 1,000-yard receiver Jermaine Kearse sprain his ankle in the first quarter and not return. They had Price sprain his knee so severely while getting sacked in the second quarter Sarkisian was about to insert backup Nick Montana, until trainers put a brace on Price's knee and cleared him back into the game, reduced to dump-off throws instead of runs. And they were down to their third-string cornerback by game's end.
Yet they are 1-0 for the first time in Sarkisian's three seasons as coach, and for just the third time in 10 years. It was the goal Sarkisian set on the first day of spring ball in March, then reinforced on lanyards the team wore all through training camp last month.
"All that matters is we won," senior linebacker and co-captain Cort Dennison said.
After spend all week telling anyone with ears how good Eastern Washington, the defending champions of the Football Championship Subdivision returning the bulk of that team, Sarkisian said he wasn't relieved, or frustrated -- or necessarily happy, either.
"I don't know if I am any of those," said one of a handful of college coaches in the last half century to turn a winless team into a bowl winner within two years. "I'm happy to be 1-0. But I also know we can play better than that. So the challenge is, how do we get to that point? Because we are going to see something very similar next week (at home versus Hawaii)." His task to his staff and players after this escape?
"How do we get to that to where we are playing more to our potential than we were able to play today?" Sarkisian said.
The Huskies, playing a lower-division school for the first time, were without senior starting cornerback Quinton Richardson. He was out with a high ankle sprain. Eastern Washington senior Bo Levi Mitchell set career highs with 39 completions in 69 passes for 473 yards, with three touchdowns, as EWU out-gained Washington 504-250.
But the opportunistic Huskies converted two turnovers on punt returns by the Eagles - one when an EWU blocker had a bouncing punt hit him in the helmet for a zany fumble. They then held on in their first game against an in-state school other than Washington State since 1944.
Washington faced a 3rd and 2 at its own 38 with just over 2 minutes remaining and Eastern surging with momentum. But Polk plowed for 4 yards for a huge first down behind sophomore right tackle Erik Kohler. That forced the Eagles to burn their three time outs and start the final drive from their own 5 with just over a minute left.
Yet they got to the UW 25, on the edge of tying field-goal range. By that point the 6-foot Trufant had a career-high 11 tackles, because EWU kept throwing against him to the 6-5 Brandon Kaufman. Kaufman finished with a career-high 10 catches and 140 yards.
But this last time, Trufant leaped in front of Kaufman just inside the goal line on the right sideline. Mitchell's final throw was a bit short, and Trufant leaped to catch it with Kaufman banging into his back and shoulders. Eastern's receiver tried to wrestle the ball from Trufant when the Husky landed in the end zone. But the junior, whose brother, Isaiah, played for Eastern, would not let go.
"They were throwing a lot of fades. We were kind of expecting the deep-ball fade," Trufant said, the cover boy on Saturday's game program at the stadium. "I was definitely looking for it. And it just happened to come."
Dennison ran into the end zone and pounded Trufant repeatedly on the helmet. Teammates engulfed them as the crowd and sidelines went bonkers.
"Big players step up and make big plays in big-time situations," Dennison said, apparently believing Trufant's play was, well, big. "I love that kid. He's one of the best competitors I've ever been around. He deserves it. He works just as hard as anybody. When his moment came, he took advantage."
Mitchell said "I put the ball where I wanted," adding he was trying to throw it a tad short so Kaufman had a chance to leap for the reception.
"But obviously, Desmond Trufant is a great player and he's probably going to go on and have a great career in the NFL."
Trufant shrugged when asked if he was concerned with all the passing yards.
"I mean, they threw 70 times. They are going to get some yards. It's about limiting the touchdowns," Trufant said.
"But we've definitely got to get better. We're not satisfied at all."
Then again, as Huskies' fullback Jonathan Amosa said after the converted linebacker caught his first career touchdown pass: "We'll take it."
Polk said Sarkisian told him at 1 p.m. Saturday, prior to the 4 p.m. kickoff, that he was playing. Price, Polk's roommate, didn't even know.
"I knew I'd play," said Polk, whose 12th career 100-yard rushing day equals Robin Earl for third-most in UW history -- Napoleon Kaufman (17) and Greg Lewis (15) are ahead of Polk. "This is actually my second meniscus surgery. My first one I was back in a week in a half, and no treatment. That was the before my redshirt freshman year, right before kept.
"I was in treatment nine hours a day (this time). I knew I would be back. ... My knee feels good. Everything else hurts."
Late in the third quarter, Price scrambled left despite a constricting brace on the sprained knee and found true freshman Kasen Williams - his first read who had been covered initially -- running across the back of the end zone. The 6-yard touchdown pass had Washington up 27-13, despite Eastern having a 259-79 edge in passing yardage at that point.
"The brace was kind of stiff. I couldn't move the way I wanted to," said Price, with an ice pack over his left knee after going 17 for 25 for 102 yards passing, with three sacks. "But, hey, I had to play. "I'll be fine. I'll be ready to play next week."
Yet Eastern struck back as quickly as Washington scored. Mitchell, who exploited UW's five- and six-defensive back schemes and stymied its blitzes all day with shotgun snaps and quick throws, completed four consecutive passes. It was five had a would-be touchdown throw not been nullified when Eastern receiver Greg Herd was called for pushing down Huskies cornerback Greg Ducre before making that catch.
But on the next play, 3rd and 26 from the UW 43, Mitchell ran around the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open against six Huskies defensive backs. Herd finally did, behind Ducre down the left sideline. Ducre, starting for Richardson, had no help behind him despite the extra DBs in the middle. Herd made a great catch over his helmet to get Eastern within 27-20 heading into the final quarter.
A first-down pass from Price to James Johnson and a completion to Devin Aguilar, the 10th Husky to catch Price's first 15 completions, got Washington into Eastern territory. A 12-yard run by Jesse Callier, who finished with 47 yards on 10 carries on a day he thought he would start, got Erik Folk in position for his third field goal in three tries. That put the Huskies up 30-20 with 9 minutes left.
Eastern then went on a 17-play, pitch-and-catch drive to close within 30-27 on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Nicholas Edwards with 3:55 remaining.
That's when Trufant decided enough was enough and came up with the most important - and almost lone -- defensive play of the game for the Huskies.
"I don't know that I am frustrated, but I am happy it happened this early in the season," said standout defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu, who was mostly neutralized by Eastern's quick throws and just 17 rush attempts.
"We can pick up and go from here ... and get better as the season goes."
They will get better, while enjoying relative luxury of being 1-0.
Sure beats the alternative.
QUICK HITS: Folk's 53-yard field goal that put UW up 17-10 in the second quarter sailed at least 3 yards past the crossbar. Call it his sea-level career best. His official career high of 54 yards came last year in the opener at high-altitude BYU. ... Garrett Gilliland briefly replaced freshman starting OLB John Timu and got his first career INT in the second quarter. ... Johnson had a 9-yard TD catch that put UW up 14-10 early. It was his first score since Oct. 24, 2009, against Oregon. ... Five Huskies had their first career receptions: Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Amosa, Michael Hartvigson, and DiAndre Campbell.