After a month of realizations that they can indeed win with a new, fast-paced offense and new mentality, 16th-ranked UW opens Pac-12 play Saturday at 4 p.m. against Arizona (3-0). “This is the beginning to a run to championship,” Keith Price says.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – This best start to a Huskies season in a dozen years has included “a-ha!” moments. For players and coaches alike.
Actually, it’s been an “a-ha!” month for the nation’s 16th-ranked team.
The first such moment came on opening night. Steve Sarkisian, Keith Price and the UW offense had an idea but didn’t truly know how their new, supersonic, no-huddle offense was going to work come game day against a top-20 opponent.
The 38-6 run-away from Boise State that night, in which the Huskies rolled up 592 yards of offense, was indeed a revelation.
“We were all in anticipation in the first game of ‘Oh, what is this going to look like?’ – especially offensively. And we came out of the game and we were like, ‘OK, this can work if we do it the right way,’” Sarkisian said.
Then came a bye week before the second game, against Illinois at Chicago. Washington had won just three of its previous 13 games away from Seattle before it stormed to a 31-10 lead on the Illini early in the second half. Illinois scored two touchdowns to make it a one-score game before a long drive led by Price and Bishop Sankey, who had a career-high 208 yards rushing that day, and a late interception by Greg Ducre sealed the win.
“For the game to get tight and then for our guys to finish the way we did I think that was another ‘a-ha!’ moment,” Sarkisian said. “That, ‘Hey, we can do this. We can rebound when a game starts going in the other direction, that we can refocus and retake control of the ball game.’”
Last week’s 56-0 romp past Idaho State including more light-bulb moments for the Huskies -- the younger ones. The starters left with a 42-0 lead in the second quarter, creating the first extended playing time for many. Some new guys realized they could hang on this big-time level. Others saw it wasn’t as easy as in practice.
All of this during UW’s first 3-0 start since beginning 4-0 in 2001 has prepared the Huskies for Saturday’s objective: To turn their previous revelations into now-expected, consistent performance in the Pac-12 season, which begins against Arizona (3-0) at Husky Stadium (4 p.m. on FOX television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive game chat and free, streaming audio of UW’s live radio broadcast).
“The key is to understand what those moments really mean and then build upon them, so that when we are faced again with a similar type situation we don’t have another ‘a-ha!’ moment. We can go back and lean on the one that we’ve already had previously,” Sarkisian said.
“And I think we will be able to do that on Saturday.
“Our fans are fired up. Our students are jacked. I think 4 o’clock is right time for them to be ready to go.”
Following Thursday’s practice Sarkisian gathered his team at midfield at Husky Stadium and told them how proud he was of them for managing the distractions of this week: the first day of the fall academic quarter, the change of personal schedules, etc.
And, yes, the Huskies have so far internalized their coach’s 2013 mantra of Anywhere, Anytime, Anyone.
Yet Arizona is not Idaho State or even Illinois. Conference play is here. Washington’s declared quest to win the Pac-12 North Division is now fully on.
“This is the beginning of making our run to a championship, to the Rose Bowl,” Price said. “This is our first obstacle.”
He and the offense have obliterated anything in their way so far this season. Washington has gained 500-plus yards in three consecutive games for the first time in its 124 years of football. The last two games , Price, Sankey and the fast-fast-faster attack has easily eclipsed 600 yards.
Sankey has rushed for 200-plus yards in two of his last three games -- with 161 yards and two touchdowns in the other one, the win over Boise State. He is the nation’s second-leading rusher at 148.7 yards per game, and that’s after he played only two series last week, gained 77 yards on four carries with a touchdown, then watched the rest of the blowout of Idaho State.
The idea was to preserve him for Saturday’s showdown with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey.
The nation’s leading rusher in 2012 is averaging 149 yards in two games this season. Carey was suspended for Arizona’s opener, a 35-0 win over Northern Arizona, and thus does not yet officially qualify among NCAA statistics leaders.
After five consecutive games dating to before last Thanksgiving spent chasing around small receivers in wide-open passing games, the Huskies’ defense will be switching into smash-mouth mode. They will be stepping up hard into gaps along the line the next three weeks to defend the potent running games of Arizona, Stanford and Oregon.
Carey will provide the first, thudding test Saturday.
Three Keys for UW vs. Arizona
1. Get tough: After five consecutive games dating to before last Thanksgiving chasing little receivers all over the field against opposing passing games, Huskies defenders get to meet Arizona’s downhill running game head on. The two words UW’s defenders said all week when asked for the key to stopping Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s leading rusher in 2012: “Be physical.” Good thing the Huskies get rugged middle linebacker John Timu back from a week off resting a bruised shoulder. And this will be a manhood-tester that mammoth defensive tackle Danny Shelton should love.
2. Get to the edge: Just as they did last week, the Huskies’ offense has a huge size advantage on the edges of the line of scrimmage. Tackles Micah Hatchie and Ben Riva outweigh the ends in the Wildcats’ unique, 3-3-5 defense by 44 and 31 pounds, respectively. Expect Bishop Sankey, the nation’s second-leading rusher at 147.8 yards per game after resting a sore shoulder for most of last week’s win, to sprint off tackle early and often. That may force Arizona’s extra defensive back closer to the line – which could lead to open up huge chances for Keith Price’s passing downfield.
3. Exploit these elements: The sun-baked Wildcats have been preoccupied enough by Saturday’s game forecast of a downpour with and 20-mph winds that they reportedly have practiced this week with footballs soaked in water. The Huskies, of course, live, train and play in this stuff. As Sarkisian said with a shrug of the weather: “It’s Seattle.” Time for Price, his deep corps of receivers and the offense to continue maintain its passing game through the rain – just as they do in the majority of their practice days inside Husky Stadium.
“He runs angry. I think he’s one of the best ,” Huskies outside linebacker Princeton Fuimaono said, using the same “angry” characterization that Sarkisian and defensive tackle Danny Shelton used this week to describe Carey.
“I’d say he’s one of the best backs, besides Sankey,” fellow linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “We’ve got to make sure he doesn’t get outside. He’s a downhill, physical runner.”
The Wildcats also have speedy quarterback B.J. Denker starting his first season at U of A. Denker has been zooming on read-option runs with Carey so far this season.
The senior and junior-college transfer is from Sarkisian’s hometown of Torrance, Calif., though Denker went to that suburb’s North High School instead of Sarkisian’s West High.
“He went to the wrong high school,” Sarkisian joked this week. “I'll have to talk to him about that pregame.”
Add in the fact there is an 80-percent chance of rain with winds approaching 20 miles per hour forecast off Lake Washington for Saturday’s game, and it could be a rush-a-thon inside Husky Stadium.
When asked if he was glad to finally get to take on an offense that will directly challenge his manhood with a run game rather than chasing little dudes all over the field, Thompson laughed.
“This game we’ve got to be way more physical,” he said. “Yeah, we finally get to go back to our physicality and what we are good at on defense.”
The Huskies will have linebacker John Timu back from a week off resting a bruised shoulder to anchor the middle of its defense against Carey, Denker and Arizona’s offense, which the Huskies believe runs plays at a fast clip than Oregon. Washington’s stunned performance in a 52-17 loss last October in Tucson was the spark that got Sarkisian thinking last winter to go with the no-huddle as the Huskies’ primary offense in 2013 – to prepare his defense for games like this as much as for scoring points.
“I’m really proud of our defense and the way that they've handled the ability to take care of up-tempo offenses that we've seen for three ball games now,” Sarkisian said. “I think our tackling is really improved. I love the way that we've pressured the quarterback the last couple ball games (seven sacks last week against overwhelmed Idaho State, four the week before at Illinois).”
Price and the Huskies are remembering last year’s mistake-filled, flat-footed humiliation at Arizona. The Wildcats aren’t letting them forget it.
“I actually texted my friend Marquise Flowers (Arizona’s senior outside linebacker), telling him, ‘We gotchu guys this week!’” Price said, smiling.
“He sent me back a picture of him making me fumble. It was funny, man.”
Then, with a face as straight as the Huskies’ focus, Price added: “We had a different team last year than we do this year.”