The No. 19 Huskies (1-0) face Illinois (2-0) Saturday at 3 p.m. with the mindset Chicago’s Soldier Field might as well be Husky Stadium – or an intramural field back at UW. “Anywhere. Anytime. Anyone.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
CHICAGO – Anywhere. Anytime. Anyone.
Even inside the storied home of the “Monsters of the Midway.”
The 19th-ranked Huskies (1-0) gathered at midfield within the Chicago Bears’ C logo at Soldier Field Friday evening to end their short walkthrough before Saturday’s 3 p.m. game here against Illinois (2-0).
They enthusiastically tested the thick, real grass, a rarity in college football these days. On the bus ride to and from the stadium, they passed more of Chicago’s landmarks: The Chicago Board of Trade, The Art Institute of Chicago, the part of Grant Park where Barack Obama gave his speech accepting his presidency on election night, the Field Museum, Buckingham Fountain.
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Yet these Dawgs believe the key to this winning Washington’s first game in the Windy City since 1929 is treating it as if they were back inside Husky Stadium. Or if they were on their East Field practice place. Or on some intramural field on UW’s campus, for that matter.
“We’ve been preaching anywhere, anytime, anyone. We’ve been preaching no distractions. We’ve been preaching it’s not about who we are playing. It’s not about what uniforms they are wearing or what uniforms we are wearing. It’s not about what kind of turf it is. It’s not about where the stadium is or what the weather is,” coach Steve Sarkisian said in advance of Washington coming off its 38-6 win over Boise State and then a bye for this first meeting with Illinois since 1971.
“It’s about what we can control. And that’s our preparation, our attention to detail, our execution and ultimately our conditioning, that we are in great shape.”
The best news in that last regard for the Huskies: Austin Seferian-Jenkins is back in shape for Illinois.
The preseason All-American tight end sat out the opening win Aug. 31. Upon his return to practice last week he felt winded keeping up with Keith Price and the super-fast, no-huddle offense the quarterback will run again here Saturday.
But this week he was noticeably sleeker in practice; even his previously bushy hair is streamlined to a near buzz cut for his 2013 debut. He’ll be going against an Illinois defense that allowed 34 points in its opening win over lower-division Southern Illinois, then rebounded with an eye-opening shutdown of Cincinnati in the Illini’s 45-17 home win downstate from here last week.
Washington put up 38 points and 592 yards on offense against then-No. 19 Boise State without its often-dominant tight end. That would seem to bode well for UW Saturday – and beyond.
As Price put it following the opening win: “Once he gets back, it’s going to be kind of scary.”
Seferian-Jenkins says his conditioning “is pretty close to where I want it to be. It’s not like I’m worried about it, like I was last Monday. It’s kind of just pushing through like everyone else now.
"I’m excited to be back and running with the first team.”
As for the surgically repaired small finger on his right hand in which a surgeon inserted a pin last month, Seferian-Jenkins sounds surprised now to be asked about that.
“Oh, it’s fine. I was catching the ball out there, blocking (this week in practice),” he said. “It’s an afterthought. It doesn’t hurt.
"Everyone overplayed that. It’s just a pinkie."
Price specifically noted how good senior linebacker Jonathan Brown appears to be inside Illinois' defense. The quarterback noticed the Illini played a lot of coverage off the ball against Cincinnati. That would put the onus on Price to hit check-down receivers and be patient with his reads in proverbial take-what-the-defensive-gives mode.
That, in turn, would suggest UW's big, fast receivers could get chances to make plays and break tackles outside. Sarkisian said this week he intends to get wide receiver Demore’ea Stringfellow, one of seven true freshmen to play in the opener, more touches on offense.
The coach also intends to depend again on Bishop Sankey’s running. The junior followed his 1,400-yard rushing season in 2012 with 161 yards against Boise State. Sankey has run for 100 yards five times in his last six games. This time he will be playing before about three dozen family members and friends from northeast Ohio, where he grew up. Saturday’s game is also a day before Sankey’s 21st birthday.
“It’s going to be a great experience. I’m excited to get the opportunity to play in front of them,” Sankey said.
The last time he played in front of many family members was in December’s MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. And he didn’t exactly have stage fright; he set a UW bowl record with 205 yards rushing that day against Boise State.
Washington’s defense is focused on “affecting,” to use the word of coordinator Justin Wilcox, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The Huskies have talked about keeping a constricting “cage,” a harmonious pass rush, around the mobile Scheelhaase, who has completed 74 percent of his passes for an average of 364 yards per game though two games. Both numbers lead the Big Ten, and the yardage is sixth in the country.
If the Huskies affect Scheelhaase, it will likely be because of standout games from Josh Shirley, Hau’oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton, Evan Hudson, Andrew Hudson and fellow UW’s pass rushers along its defensive front. A strong push by the front four against Illinois’ big offensive line, without having to resort to blitzing, would free linebackers Shaq Thompson, John Timu, Travis Feeney and Princeton Fuimaono to better cover Illinois’ varied formations and pass routes outside.
How the Huskies fare on first and second downs will be key.
“We’ve got to get them into third and longs as a defense, just in general, so we can get in better pass rush opportunities,” Kikaha said. “That’s the first thing: Get them in third and long. Then we’ll use our best moves.”
So far, the Huskies’ best moves of this road trip have been to treat Saturday like just another game at wherever. That’s a message Sarkisian has changed over the last two seasons, when Washington has gone 3-10 away from Seattle.
“We just can’t make a big deal of it,” Price said. “Everyone likes to make a big deal of us traveling, of our record on the road. It’s a new team. It’s a new year.
“We are going to attack it like it’s a home game. Prepare like it’s a home game. There’s really no difference. It really has to be our livelihood, how we make it and how we operate on the road.”
Spoken as if Sarkisian had said it.
“We’ve obviously had our issues on the road when we’ve gone there,” the coach said. “I think that our team understands that the way we play at home is exactly how we want to play when we go on the road. So we are not going to try to do anything different. We are going bottle up what we do at home and take it on the road with us.
“We are going to go out on the field and play with the same energy, the same enthusiasm, the same focus, the same attention to detail, physicality that I know we are capable of playing with.”