Huskies Arrive in Desert With Huge Chance to Get Going
Oct. 19, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
TUCSON, Ariz. - Keith Price went through "The Gauntlet" at practice this week.
Wait a minute ... didn't the Huskies' quarterback just get through one of those while facing four top-11 teams these last five weeks in LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC?
Turns out, this gauntlet was a lineup of teammates and even strength coaches who pushed, slapped at and strong-armed Price in an attempt to dislodge the ball he was carrying.
Seven turnovers - including three fumbles on scrambles or sacks - the last two weeks summoned "The Gauntlet" in advance of the Huskies (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) arriving here in the desert for Saturday's 7:06 p.m. game at Arizona (3-3, 0-3).
"I had about three guys stripping at the ball. So I'm working on it," Price said this week. "I don't remember the last time I've fumbled three times in two weeks. That's been uncharacteristic to me. I just have to be better with the ball.
"They actually got it out once, but other than that they didn't get it out," Price said of his latest "gauntlet" drill. "I tried to keep it in two hands, because one of our strength coaches is pretty strong."
The affable redshirt junior laughed over that.
Saturday brings a huge opportunity for more smiles.
More so than any game yet this season - and maybe all year - this appears to be the chance for Price and UW's offense to finally break free from their own "gauntlet" of being last in the Pac-12 in passing.
"Definitely Arizona's offense, as everyone knows, it's pretty well documented they are able to score," said UW tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, whose five receptions per game and 29 catches this season are the most in the nation among tight ends so far this season.
"Their defense - we've watched film and they are good, as well. But I think we can take advantage of some things."
Such as their receivers' size against Arizona's small, thin defense.
Seferian-Jenkins, who caught five passes including one for a touchdown last week against USC, could be extra huge this week beyond his 6 feet 6, 260 pounds. So might wide receiver Kasen Williams, UW's leading receiver with 33 catches and four touchdowns, at 6-2, 220. The biggest Wildcat among Arizona's back seven defenders is 6-foot-1 cornerback Shaquille Richardson. And he only weighs 186 pounds.
The Wildcats have had trouble defending bigger receivers. They are allowing 298 yards passing per game, 11th in the Pac-12. In their last game, at Stanford before a bye, the `Cats blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter then lost 54-48 in overtime. Stanford had scored just 13 points the week before that in the Huskies' win over the then-eighth-ranked Cardinal.
So this could be the week Washington's offense breaks out.
"Everyone knows that we are not a very big team defensively. We have struggled with some big, tall physical receiver tight end types," first-year Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said this week on the Pac-12's coaches' teleconference. "We just have to try to put pressure on the quarterback and mix up the coverages a little bit. You have to make a play on the ball."
Yes, there will be physical mismatches galore for Sarkisian to exploit with his play calls and Price to capitalize upon with his throws.
That is, if Price has time to do so.
Washington is starting four first-year starters on its injury-ravaged offensive line. Price has often been running for his well-being each time he's tried to do anything more than one-step drops on throws. He has acknowledged feeling defenses' pressure and thinking about the protection issues. That has disrupted his penchant for making big, improvisational plays. It has also kept UW coach Steve Sarkisian from getting deep into his playbook and throwing the ball further down the field.
But Arizona's defense is last in the conference with just six sacks in six games. Plus, Washington may get its line reinforced for the first time in six weeks on Saturday. Sarkisian says he is "hopeful" to have right tackle Ben Riva back from the broken forearm he got in the Sept. 1 opener against San Diego State.
Better pass protection along could make Price more confident and decisive in taking care of the ball. And that would make all the difference to the sputtering offense, which hasn't scored more than 21 points against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent this season.
"You look at Keith's game last week, he was 20 for 28 for almost 200 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for another 50 yards or so," Sarkisian said of the USC game. "It's unfortunate the turnovers have occurred. If you remove the turnovers, he played a pretty good game against a really good defensive front.
"He's just got to take care of the football. He's such a competitive guy, he'll find a way."
So will it be Saturday? Is Arizona coming at a good time for Price and the offense to get going?
"The sooner it comes it's a good time, to raise his level of play," Sarkisian said with a chuckle, "as all of us need to raise our level of play for us to be successful in the next six (games)."
Scoring would appear to be a must for Washington on Saturday night.
Arizona is number one in the conference and fifth in the nation at 368 yards passing per game. And the Wildcats have been zooming. They actually have actually played at a faster pace offensively than supersonic Oregon.
Arizona has run 543 plays this season, an average of 90 plus per game. Entering Thursday night's blowout win at Arizona State, Oregon had run 502 plays in six games -- 84 per game.
Washington has run 406 plays, or 68 plays a game.
The pilot of Arizona's jet-fast passing offense is quarterback Matt Scott. Former coach Mike Stoops redshirted the fifth-year senior last season in what became a huge favor to Rodriguez this year. Scott is fourth in the country with 2,099 yards passing this season and an average of 31 completions per game.
He was 45 of 69 for 491 yards and three touchdowns two weeks ago at Stanford. The last time Washington played in Tucson, two seasons ago, Scott filled in for injured Nick Foles and had one of the best games of his first four years at U of A. Scott completed 18 of 22 passes for 233 yards and two throwing touchdowns, and ran seven times for 65 yards, as Arizona built a 30-14 lead by halftime of a 44-14 win.
But that was against a far different Huskies defense.
This one is 12th in country in pass defense, at 173 yards allowed through the air per game. Some of that is because Washington has played rugged, run-first teams in four of the last five games of that scheduling gauntlet.
But a lot of it is because senior cornerback and co-captain Desmond Trufant is playing the best ball of his UW career. Last week he shut down Marqise Lee of USC, holding the candidate to be the national receiver of the year to just two catches and breaking up a throw to him in the end zone to deny a score.
Plus, the Huskies have rush end Josh Shirley to unleash against opposing quarterbacks on passing downs. Shirley's been an under-utilized commodity against the running-heavy opponents the last three weeks.
Rodriguez is impressed beyond UW's 3-3 record against the stiff competition.
"I think you have to treat them as team that is going to be ranked by the end of the season," Arizona's coach said. "They've beaten a ranked team. They're without a doubt one of the most athletic teams in our league.
"Keith Price is as good as any athlete. They have some of the best skilled players in the league. They have a very athletic defense. Our guys can see that on film.
"You can paint whatever picture you want, but when you see them on TV or on film you know they're good."
We're about to find out more about just how good here in the desert.