Defense Rises Up, Buries San Diego State 21-12
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – They said they’d be more aggressive. They said they’d fly to the ball more. They said they would force turnovers.
The Huskies did all that. And they absolutely needed to.
Freshman Shaq Thompson swarmed in on the very first play for a hard tackle to set the night’s jarring tone. Desmond Trufant spent much of the night in the San Diego State backfield. And with the game in serious doubt in the third quarter, Talia Crichton obliterated an Aztecs’ receiver at the end of a catch and run.
Will Shamburger scooped up the resulting fumble and sprinted 44 yards the other way with the clinching touchdown in Washington’s 21-12 victory in an up-and-down opener Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.
“We had to lean on them a bit,” Sarkisian said of his completely remade defense, which started two freshmen and a former walkon transfer from a lower-division school playing his first game in two years. “That’s a nice thing to know you can lean on your defense. We haven’t been able to do that much.
“It was an odd game that way.”
A loud crowd of 53,742 on a perfectly clear late-summer night watched Keith Price complete 25 of 35 passes for 222 yards and an 8-yard touchdown to Kasen Williams. The sophomore receiver juked an Aztecs defender back to San Diego on a wide-receiver screen to make it 14-0 early.
But the offense was hampered by a porous line that allowed San Diego State to pressure Price almost every time he tried to throw. He was sacked three times and harried far more. Eventually coach Steve Sarkisian dialed down the passing game to quicker throws and stretch runs to try to minimize San Diego State’s control of the line of scrimmage.
“Oh, man, I’m so proud of our defense,” Price said, with a huge grin. “They won the game for us, quite honestly.”
After the game Price was just like San Diego State’s defense during it – dumping on the quarterback.
He was 25 for 35, a 71-percent completion rate that was four points higher than his UW record 66.9 percent last season. He completed 13 in a row at one point in the first half. He became the first Husky since Jake Locker in the 2009 opener against LSU to complete 25 passes in a game.
Yet Price rolled his eyes and shrugged as if he had played his worst game since his little Pop Warner days in Bellflower, Calif.
“I haven’t played that bad a game in a long time. I played a terrible game,” said Price, who also set UW’s season record with 33 touchdown passes in 2011.
“I promise you I will be better than that.”
It didn’t help Price or UW’s offense that starting running back Jesse Callier bruised his right knee in the first quarter and starting right tackle Ben Riva fractured his forearm in the first half. Neither returned.
Sarkisian said Callier will be getting an MRI exam Sunday, and he hinted his junior may be out a while.
He didn’t think Riva would be playing anytime soon, either, and called it an early season test to his offensive line’s depth – beginning next Saturday night at rowdy LSU.
Sophomore tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins picked up where he left off in his 2011 debut season – as Price’s game-changing weapon all over the field. Seferian-Jenkins caught a game-high nine passes for 82 yards, several to extend drives in Sarkisian’s self-described effort to shorten the game once the Huskies took a two-score lead.
Told Price’s self-assessed he was “terrible,” Seferian-Jenkins almost scoffed.
“He’s his own worst critic. I don’t think anyone’s worried about that.
“It’s only the first game of the season. We are going to get better.”
New coordinator Justin Wilcox’s defense was flying from the start and was in control of the game for the first 2½ quarters. Tre Watson, the former walkon and transfer out of the Football Championship Subdivision who earned a scholarship Friday and his first start Saturday, prevented a touchdown on the opening kickoff. Then he intercepted Katz and returned it into Aztec territory on the first drive.
That set up Sankey’s 2-yard touchdown run and UW’s lead 4:37 into the season.
The defense’s only mistake in the first half was not noticing San Diego State sneaking wide – waaaay wide – receiver Tim Vizzi onto the field just in front of the Aztecs’ bench during the break between the first and second quarters. Sarkisian noticed Vizzi and tried to call timeout from the opposite sideline, but the officials didn’t grant one.
Vizzi took a quick pass from Ryan Katz and almost jogged alone 47 yards to cut Washington’s lead to 14-6.
Sarkisian was still shaking his head over that play after the game. He thinks it was an illegal deception play.
“I know the rule is you can’t rule a play with the intent to deceive … and they deceived us,” Sarkisian said, adding he thought that rule went in after he used the same trick successfully a few years ago calling USC’s plays against the Huskies.
The defense’s new aggressiveness and approach were startling. And startlingly effective.
Trufant got a sack on a double-corner blitz in the first half; when’s the last time the Washington defense did that?
Travis Feeney, a redshirt freshman and converted safety making his first career start at linebacker, nailed Katz on one of UW’s four sacks to force a fumble that Justin Glenn recovered because he was finishing a safety blitz.
Then came Crichton’s big hit on Colin Lockett after a catch. Shamburger’s scoop and score down the sideline directly in front of a delirious Huskies’ bench put UW back in control, 21-6, 5 minutes into the second half.
The third quarter ended with UW up by 15 and San Diego State having just 186 total yards on offense. In last season’s opening three-point squeak past Eastern Washington, UW’s defense allowed 379 yards in the first three quarters.
Wilcox, seeking perfection, bemoaned many missed tackles and a loss of contain of the quarterback on the Huskies’ many mad dashes into the Aztecs’ backfield. Katz, the transfer from Oregon State, scrambled for 77 yards on 16 carries by getting outside UW’s edge defenders.
“I thought we played aggressively,” Wilcox said. “I think we covered well. We where we needed to be in our pass coverage. But we’ve got to do a better job keeping the quarterback in the pocket and collapsing it.”
Trufant left the game soon after that with a hamstring injury. Sarkisian termed that only a “tweak” that the Huskies do not believe is serious.
INSIDE THE DAWGS: WR Kevin Smith had two catches for 20 yards – include one for 13 yards to convert a third down in the second half – almost eight months to the day after the popular junior tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. “Oh, man, I’m so proud of him,” Price said. “He’s worked so hard.” … The Huskies observed a moment of silence immediately before the pregame coin toss for George Hickman. The original Tuskegee Airman and usher at Husky Stadium, Alaska Airlines Arena, Husky Softball Stadium and Seahawks’ games for a decade died last week at the age of 88. A framed picture of George hangs above his usual post inside the CenturyLink Field press-box door, with notes of love and condolences tacked around it. … Washington won for the eighth time in nine home openers. … The Huskies played seven true freshmen: Thompson, RB Erich Wilson II, DE Pio Vatuvei, starting WR Jaydon Mickens, WR Kendyl Taylor, P Korey Durkee, and LS Ryan Masel. … Next week’s game at LSU begins at 4 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ESPN.