Much Has Changed Since They Last Met, But Huskies Still Have Polk To Run At Cal
Sept. 23, 2011
Huskies Can Thank Soccer For Delivering Their Folk Hero
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Almost nothing is the same since the Huskies last met California 10 months ago.
Most noticeably, the quarterbacks are different -- and dangerous. Washington's Keith Price and Cal's similarly dynamic Zach Maynard have combined to throw 20 touchdown passes over this season's first three weeks.
The stakes are different, too, with bowl elimination not yet directly on the line in September as it was last Nov. 27.
The venue is also different this time. Saturday's 12:30 p.m. Pac-12 opener between the Huskies (2-1) and Golden Bears (3-0) is at Husky Stadium and will be broadcast on ROOT Sports television locally, Fox Sports Network nationally, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another live game chat with exclusive access.
"Our first game in the Pac-12, we want to come out strong and send a message," Huskies senior wide receiver and co-captain Jermaine Kearse said.
The message Cal may get early and often Saturday from the Dawgs is that there is one constant from last November: Chris Polk is still romping for the Huskies.
The last time these met, in the rain, hail and sun in Berkeley, Washington sent Cal to its first losing season in nine years. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian decided against a chip-shot field goal that would have forced overtime and instead called all Huskies around him on the sideline during a time out. He fired up the team and UW's season by going for the win, calling for an unbalanced line and off-tackle run by Polk on the game's final play.
Polk scored, one of his 1,415 yards rushing in 2010, and Washington won 16-13 to keep alive its postseason hopes en route to an eventual win in the Holiday Bowl.
Price has since taken over for Jake Locker at UW. He is the nation's co-leader in touchdown passes with a school-record 11 through three games, but he has sore knees. That makes Polk, who has rushed for 100 yards in each of UW's three games, perhaps even more important to the Huskies' quest to go 1-0 in the conference for the third time in Sarkisian's three seasons leading them.
The bullish Polk could turn Saturday's meeting between the only two perennial members of what is now the Pac-12 Conference since the league's inception in 1915 into a grudge match.
Asked for a synopsis of Cal's defense, Sarkisian gushed over how tough these Bears are.
"Oh, physical. Physical, man. Geez," he said. "In looking at our conference, I would say they and USC are probably the most physically dominant-looking teams on film up front, in that front seven."
Establishing Polk's smash-mouth running against that strong front will likely be the key to the game. It would help tame Cal's pass rush on Price and set up more comfortable, play-action passes for the redshirt sophomore. Price often had to limp away from trouble last week while throwing four touchdown passes in Washington's 51-38 loss at ninth-ranked Nebraska.
On defense, the Huskies have to contain a far more dynamic quarterback in Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo, than they did while facing the relatively static Brock Mansion in Berkeley last season.
Maynard's favorite target is a familiar one. Bears sophomore wide receiver Keenan Allen has 20 catches in three games -- and is Maynard's half brother. They grew up together in the same house in North Carolina, raised by Maynard's father, and have been playing football together since each was in early grade school.
So when they absolutely have to have a play, look for the Bears to connect Maynard and Allen.
Maynard, as Sarkisian said, "makes them tick." He has nine touchdown throws against three interceptions in three games, though he is completing just 51.6 percent of his passes.
Washington has had problems containing mobile quarterbacks that have found extra time to throw by running around in the backfield in each of the first three games. Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Nick Holt and the Huskies' players say their young blitzers need to rush with more decisiveness to get the added pass pressure a nicked-up secondary could use.
Safety Nate Fellner may be back this week after missing the Nebraska game with a hamstring injury. Senior cornerback Quinton Richardson is playing through a healing process on a high ankle sprain from last month. And backup safety Taz Stevenson is questionable to play Saturday because of knee injury.
"This is the fourth straight week of us facing an athletic quarterback back there that can buy time," Sarkisian said. "And we've got to find a way to contain him."
One way might be with Josh Shirley. Sarkisian said the rush end who was dominant in spring ball just had his best week of practice since then. The redshirt freshman could add pressure outside Saturday, to offset the pattern of opponents largely avoiding stalwart defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu and rugged middle linebacker Cort Dennison inside this season.
Cal has been ranked in the Top 25 at some point in each of the last seven seasons. Washington is trying to get back in a poll for the first time since late September 2009, just after the Huskies upset USC at home 16-13 in Sarkisian's first season.
They may be angry Bears walking into Husky Stadium. Washington stopped Cal's school-record streak of seven consecutive seasons with a bowl appearance last November by winning in Berkeley. Cal finished 5-7.
Of course all conference games are important, but this one could prove key to Washington's hopes for a fast start in the new Pac-12 North Division. Next week the Huskies play at Utah, which just pounded rival Brigham Young on the road 54-10. Then they have a bye before hosting Colorado and traveling to division co-favorite Stanford.
"Yeah these games really count. We're not going to prepare differently but ... the ones especially within your division, at home, these are vitally important," Sarkisian said. "It's great to come out of the preseason 2-1 on the winning side, to where we can say we're on top as we head into Pac-12 play. Now, the score changes here on Saturday. There's that other column next to the win-losses, it's the conference win-losses.
"This is a big one."