The reason the Huskies are ranked 17th and seeking their first 3-0 start since 2001 Saturday beginning at noon against Idaho State (2-0) is their rebounding offensive line. UW’s blockers will decide this game, too.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Much of this Huskies season – what it currently is and what it will ultimately become – rests squarely on the hulking shoulders of their offensive line.
Battered as much as they were maligned in 2012 – 80 percent of Washington’s starting blockers was injured last season -- UW’s five blockers up front vowed to a man all summer that they were agitated to prove last year was an anomaly. Without Micah Hatchie, Dexter Charles, Mike Criste, healthy-again Colin Tanigawa and Ben Riva staying healthy and being a consistent vanguard this season, it didn’t matter how fast the Huskies’ new no-huddle offense went. It didn’t matter how well quarterback Keith Price or running back Bishop Sankey felt.
As Ben Riva said accurately last month of him of his linemen coached by veteran, demanding assistant Dan Cozzetto: “It’s on us.”
It sure has been so far. The offensive line’s conditioning, consistency and contributions are why the Huskies are ranked 17th in the nation – their highest place in 10 years – and are going for their first 3-0 start since 2001 on Saturday beginning at noon against Idaho State (2-0) at Husky Stadium (Pac-12 Networks television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive game chat with live streaming audio free of charge).
Don’t just take our word for it. Take the guy’s whose livelihood depends on these blockers.
“The offensive line is doing a tremendous job,” Price said. “It’s night and day between this year and last year. Coach Cozzetto has done a tremendous job with them. They’ve matured. They’ve had enough game experience. And they know that if they keep me upright, if they keep Sankey running through those holes they’ve been making, man, we have an explosive offense.
“They understand that it’s on them in order for us to be successful as a team.”
The line is why Price, a fifth-year senior, already this season set UW’s career record for touchdown passes and had back-to-back, 300-yard passing games, after having done that only twice before in three seasons.
The O-line is why Sankey is leading the nation with an average of 184.5 yards rushing per game. Over his last seven games Sankey is averaging a whopping 163 yards rushing per start. Over a full season that would be 2,119 yards. The school rushing record for a season is 1,695 yards by Corey Dillon in 1996.
The five guys up front are why Washington is averaging 603.5 total yards per game. The Huskies’ 1,207 yards is their most through two games to begin a season since at least 1947, the year the school began keeping such records.
A prime example of the offensive line’s difference from last year to now came on the first score of last week’s 34-24 win over Illinois in Chicago. Price took a deep drop to pass on first down from the Illini 31. He looked at his first and second reads to his left, wide receivers outside. He looked down the middle to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He looked back to his left at his fourth option, another wide receiver breaking off his route.
All were covered. As casually as seeing a pal in class, Price then looked to his right, to his only receiver on that side of the field. Sankey, Price fifth option on the play, didn’t have anyone within Chicago’s city limits of him. Still free of pressure, Price flipped the ball easily to the lonely Sankey for a 31-yard touchdown. UW had the lead it never relinquished.
Asked this week how often last season he had the time to look at five options on a pass play without a defender harassing him, Price laughed and said, “Uhhh … probably never.”
All this has come with the same five linemen starting each game. Sure, two games doesn’t sound like much of a sample size. But consider this: By this time last season Washington had already churned through eight starters on its offensive line.
This production has also come with the key adjunct member of the line, the 6-foot-6, 276-pound Seferian-Jenkins, missing the first game then admitting “I can do a lot better” in blocking than he did last week in his 2013 debut.
“I need to be a dominant run blocker,” the preseason All-American tight end said Wednesday. “To not just have it be, block a guy and getting it done.”
He will get another chance at that goal Saturday against Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference and the lower, Football Championship Subdivision.
Three Keys for UW vs. Idaho State
1. Flex the muscle: The Huskies offense has a huge size advantage along the line of scrimmage. Tackles Micah Hatchie and Ben Riva outweigh the Bengals they will be blocking most often by 23 and 59 pounds, respectively. Expect Steve Sarkisian to exploit this advantage early and often with off-tackle runs by Bishop Sankey, the nation’s rushing leader. Remember, for all the thoughts Sarkisian is a pass-first play caller in this no-huddle offense, he has run it 59 percent of the time since Sankey became the feature back 15 games ago.
2. Grip, rip and strip: UW’s defense has yet to force a fumble this season, and the two interceptions it has came on the first defensive drive of the season and the last one late against Illinois. The Huskies have worked all this week on creating more turnovers by not just attacking ball carriers for tackles but attacking the ball itself. This new focus will be good to put into play now, before Pac-12 play begins next week against 2012 national rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey and Arizona and continues at smash-mouth, No. 5 Stanford the week after that.
3. Start faster: The Huskies have rolled up loads of yards but not points in the first halves of two games; only 20 of their 72 points this season have come prior to halftime. A decisive, inspired start to this one, their first game back in their new stadium in three weeks, would jazz the sold-out Dawg Pack full of students back on campus for next week’s start to fall quarter. It would also extinguish any hope the underdog visitors may have of being the latest FCS school to take one of the top-level programs down to the wire.
Left tackle Hatchie is three inches taller and 23 pounds heavier than Idaho State’s right defensive end, David Forester. Riva at right tackle is four inches taller and 59 pounds heavier than Bengals left end Austin Graves. Inside, UW will have the 306-pound Criste at center plus 289-pound Charles and 275-pound Tanigawa. They will repeatedly bang into a single, 305-pound nose tackle in Tyler Kuder -- Idaho State lists three down linemen as its base defense – plus 245-pound linebacker Mitch Beckstead in the middle behind Kuder.
On the edge, Idaho State’s rush end Jake Pele weighs 247. The outside linebackers weight 215 and 235. That’s who Seferian-Jenkins will often be blocking. The Huskies often bring in 257-pound Michael Hartvigson as a second, blocking tight end. They may do that even more on Saturday.
Beyond the size, Washington also has the advantage of pace. The defensive lines of Boise State and Illinois have tired noticeably in the second halves of UW’s first two games while the Huskies have averaged 85 plays per game in the hurry-up, no-huddle. The Dawgs have scored 52 of their 72 points this season after halftime, the fruits of offseason conditioning workouts in which the Huskies’ linemen pushed and pulled weighted sleds across the turf like, well, real Huskies.
“Against Illinois, we could tell their defensive was getting worn out,” said Sankey, who had 146 of his career-high 208 yards against the Illini in the second half. “Watching it on film, you could tell. You could see their guys moving slower, not coming downfield as hard. … The no-huddle offense causes the defense to be out of place sometimes. You will start seeing holes throughout the game that you didn’t see at the beginning of the game, when the defense was fresh.
“It’s something that our offense does to defenses. By keeping the tempo high it works to our advantage.”
So far for the Huskies and their rebounding offensive line, that advantage has been huge.