Washington quarterback Keith Price saw wide receiver Jaydon Mickens break open, and he let the ball fly. If Price's pass reached its target, the Huskies would trail Stanford by only three points with plenty of time remaining in the fourth quarter, and they'd have all the momentum. Price had accounted for everything except the 6-foot-6 All-Pac-12 linebacker who noticed Price setting up to throw, and, per his coaches' instructions, broke off his pursuit of a sack and leaped straight up with his arms extended.
Stanford's Trent Murphy tipped Price's pass, and it landed in the hands of fellow Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley. The deficit remained fixed at 10. The momentum evaporated. So, it seemed, had Washington's chances. "If they didn't get a hand on it, it would have been a touchdown," Price would say later. "Stuff like that happens." After saying that last part late Saturday night in Palo Alto, Price sighed loud enough for the folks back in Seattle to hear. But the sigh wasn't because that interception had cost Washington last week's game. It most certainly had not.
In fact, the way the Huskies responded to the interception proves how far they've come since coach Steve Sarkisian was hired following the 2008 season to resurrect a once-proud program that had fallen into an 0-12 pit in Ty Willingham's final campaign. On the sideline, no player hung his head. "There was not a sense of panic," Sarkisian said this week. "There was not a sense of dejection." After Price's pick, cornerback Marcus Peters went to his quarterback and promised the defense would get the ball back. Three plays later, Stanford punted. Six plays after that, a Price pass found Mickens in the end zone.
The Huskies did not finish the comeback. They lost 31-28. They did not celebrate any sort of moral victory, and a disgusted Sarkisian said as much after the game. But a few days later, Sarkisian was asked how one of his previous Washington teams would have handled that interception. Despite his frustration at the outcome, he could appreciate how different the 2013 Huskies are from their predecessors. "In earlier years, we'd have lost that game the other night by 17 to 24 points," Sarkisian said. "These guys hung in there. They continued to fight."
That's another building block for a program that needed more than a basic renovation when Sarkisian arrived. He had to pour a new foundation before he could even start building to this point. When Sarkisian took over, Washington players wouldn't wear Huskies gear around campus because they were embarrassed. "As a young coach, I was coming in thinking it was going to be all X's and O's, that we were just going to score points and play defense. I quickly realized it was more about changing a culture. I had to change the way they think, the way they act, the way they talk, the way they dress. It's not a sometime thing. It's an all-the-time thing."
Last week, Price and fellow fifth-year senior Will Shamburger addressed their teammates to explain just how dire the circumstances were when they arrived on campus in 2009. Sarkisian asked Price and Shamburger to do this because he didn't want the older players to forget where they started, and he wanted the young players to understand how hard their veteran teammates had worked to get them to this point.
This point is the biggest Washington home game in more than a decade. Second-ranked Oregon is coming to freshly renovated Husky Stadium on Saturday. So is ESPN's College GameDay. The Huskies missed their chance to upset a top-five team on national television last weekend, but they'll get another chance to accomplish the feat this week.
Sarkisian has brought the Huskies almost all the way back, but to get where he wants to go, Washington has to win a game like Saturday's. Sarkisian overhauled the attitude in those early years, and Washington's record improved. The Huskies shocked USC and reached a bowl in year two. But that was the beginning of a three-season stay on the seven-win plateau. After a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl ended year three, Sarkisian fired his defensive staff and brought in coordinator Justin Wilcox, who had just spent a year at Tennessee after building the dominant defenses at Boise State. After year four, Sarkisian tinkered with his offense after deciding that a faster tempo fit his personnel. Sarkisian finally liked his depth at the skill positions, and rapid-fire plays kept Price from overanalyzing every snap.
This season, Washington has averaged 85 plays a game. The Huskies' defense ranks third in the nation behind Michigan State and Florida in yards per play allowed (3.94). Of course, one of the reasons Washington's defense gave up so few yards last Saturday was because two long kickoff returns and a long punt return either provided or set up Stanford touchdowns. So Sarkisian, who has changed almost everything in his time at Seattle, made one more adjustment. He added more positional starters to his kick coverage teams. "Oregon is a tremendous return team," Sarkisian said. "We have to have our best players covering kicks. ... We just can't afford to give up that hidden yardage in the return game. Even if they only get to the 40. That's two first downs if we don't pin them down at the 20."
That Sarkisian can worry about yards in the return game rather than teaching his players how to mentally recover from a crushing turnover speaks to the progress of the rebuild. Sarkisian can focus on the micro rather than the macro.
Now, he and the Huskies need only apply the finishing touch by beating an elite opponent. Their best chance comes on Saturday.
• Missouri at Georgia: A few weeks ago, this didn't look like much of a challenge for the Bulldogs. Now? Missouri is 5-0, and Tigers quarterback James Franklin claimed the title of the SEC's hottest James Franklin with a win at Vanderbilt last week. Meanwhile, Georgia will be without its best two backs and its best three receivers. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray may need to work the kind of magic he worked last week in Knoxville. Or Georgia's defense will have to pick up the slack.
• Texas vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas): Read Pete Thamel's look at the decline of Texas athletics to understand why this could be Mack Brown's last stand.
• Indiana at Michigan State: The Spartans lead the nation in total defense (203.8 yards) and yards per play allowed (3.28). Now they'll face an offense that broke out last week with a 486-yard, 44-point performance in a win against Penn State.
• South Carolina at Arkansas: Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier vented on Saturday about the way defensive end Jadeveon Clowney told coaches about his muscle strain prior to the Kentucky game, but the anger appears to stem more from an issue of medical protocol than an issue of Clowney's motivation. A much cooler Spurrier stressed on Sunday and again on Tuesday that he was upset with the timing and Clowney's lack of communication during the week. So even though this story turned into a launching pad for some seriously scorching sports takes, it may not actually be that contentious. "He has been coming to treatment, I think, twice a day and told me he is doing everything he can to try to get ready to play," Spurrier said. "All those No. 7 jerseys, and all the money he's made for our school -- he's been a tremendous, important player. And we all, every Gamecock, including me, coaches, everybody out there -- we need to be appreciative he chose South Carolina." For his part, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema would like to see Clowney on the field on Saturday.
• Boston College at Clemson: The ACC has already begun hyping Florida State's visit to Clemson next week, which is to be expected because it's the biggest game of the year in the conference. But it will take on less significance if the Tigers get caught looking past this week. So they probably shouldn't watch this eight-bit homage. Here's betting the Eagles will watch. They'll certainly love that their own league overlooked them so brazenly.
• Florida at LSU: LSU's improved offense will face its toughest test in what should be good practice for its Nov. 7 matchup against Alabama. The difference? While Florida's defense can suffocate offenses as well or better than Alabama's, the Gators' offense will not be nearly as dynamic as the Crimson Tide's. Or so we think. Since Tyler Murphy replaced the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback for Florida, the Gators have looked much more confident with the ball.
• Baylor at Kansas State: The Bears take their buzzsaw offense on the road for the first time all season against a team still angry that Baylor ruined its chance for a perfect regular season in 2012. If the Bears lay waste to Bill Snyder's defense, it might be time to stop the "Yeah, but" reaction to Baylor's historic offensive output. If the Wildcats slow the Bears, it may be time to reevaluate the numbers.
• Northwestern at Wisconsin: Vegas knows something those of us with poll votes don't. That's the only logical conclusion when faced with the fact that the bookmakers installed the Badgers as 10.5-point favorites. It makes sense, though. Northwestern, coming off an emotional loss to Ohio State in one of the biggest games in school history, goes to Madison to face a rested team that got jobbed by the officials at Arizona State and narrowly lost on the road at Ohio State.
• Michigan at Penn State: Penn State watched helplessly as Indiana turned on the afterburners last week. So what of the Nittany Lions now? Have NCAA sanctions begun to take their toll? This doesn't seem the case. Penn State is relatively healthy and still has some excellent players at key positions, especially along the lines of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Michigan finally snapped out of its funk last week and beat an inferior opponent (Minnesota) resoundingly. On Saturday, we might be able to find out whether one or both of last week's games was an anomaly.
• Alabama at Kentucky: Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix remains suspended for Alabama, but that likely will have zero effect on this game. First-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has been great at selling dreams on the recruiting trail, and he has succeeded in getting more out of the players he inherited. But the Wildcats still don't have enough talent to hang with the Crimson Tide.
• Texas A&M at Ole Miss: Last year, the Aggies went to Oxford and turned the ball over six times. They also won. Why? Remember Johnathan Football? In case you forgot about him during Texas A&M's bye week, go to the 2:34 mark of this video for a refresher.
Your playoff committee quiz
Since Condoleezza Rice's name leaked last week, a debate has raged over whether the former Secretary of State belongs on the College Football Playoff selection committee. This is just a hunch, but the complaints probably wouldn't have been as loud had CFP leaders picked former Secretary of State George Schultz. I have no problem with Rice's selection. I have a huge problem if another leaked name winds up becoming a committee member. When he was commissioner of the Big East, Mike Tranghese worked hard to ensure that college football would never have a playoff. On principle, he should have no role in the playoff process.
There may be some misogyny at play in the complaints about Rice, but some of the angst is due to the fact that Rice comes from a place outside the college sports power structure. As a group, college football fans fear change more than any other sports fan base. The idea of using a set of eyes outside the same familiar group scares a lot of fans -- just as a playoff scares a lot of fans. The fact is that a group of 13 rational people usually will come up with the same four teams that the current system of polls and computers would.
All I want on the committee are smart people who pay close attention to college football. That's it. (And no, I don't want to be on the committee. Any writer who does doesn't really understand his/her job. Also, I'm not smart. Just ask my wife or look at my AP Poll ballot.) So, before the names get announced, I hope Bill Hancock and the folks in charge of the playoff will administer the following short quiz to potential committee members. If they don't get a perfect score, throw their tests in the trash, dismiss them and find someone else. These are easy -- or at least they should be for the people determining who will play for the national title. The answers are at the bottom of this column.
1. Who is Derek Carr?
2. Fill in the blank: Mark Richt has lost ___________ of his players' ACLs.
3. A five technique lines up on the __________ of the ____________.
4. Can a player wearing No. 95 be an eligible receiver even if he doesn't report to the referee?
5. What is the name of USC's coach?
6. Baylor's starting quarterback is:
A) Nick Florence
B) Bryce Petty
C) Phil Petty
7. Name the only big-five conference team outside the SEC to play two members of the SEC East.
8. Name all FBS schools currently ineligible for postseason play following the 2014 season because of NCAA sanctions.
9. Which of the big-five conferences plays a round-robin league schedule?
10. Does the home team or the visiting team usually win the Florida-Georgia game?
Jokes, built by The Home Depot
Alert Twitter user @GeauxCrimson alerted the wider world to an ingenious marketing scheme by the home improvement giant earlier this week. When one types "Les Miles" into the search box at HomeDepot.com, the first result is a bag of Scott's Turf Builder grass seed for the low, low price of $26.98.
As any good college football fan -- and certainly any prospective playoff selection committee member -- knows, LSU's coach has an appetite for blades of quality grass. The good folks at USA Today got more grass-related results when they typed Miles' name into the search box. When I did it, the space between the Scott's and the next bag of seed was filled with LSU-branded home improvement products.
Vintage video of the week
In the days before replay review, officials made some egregious mistakes. In the soggy 1984 Texas-Oklahoma game, Sooners defensive back Keith Stanberry appeared to intercept Texas quarterback Todd Dodge, but officials ruled that Stanberry made the catch out of bounds even though a replay showed Stanberry got not one but two feet in bounds after catching the ball. The interception would have sealed a three-point win for Oklahoma. Instead, Texas kicked a field goal and the game ended in a 15-15 tie. Imagine that. A blown call that benefitted the Longhorns. It's a good thing college football has replay review now.
As you watch this video, keep in mind that Barry Switzer coached this game while wearing this hat.
On the menu
Texas A&M fans who couldn't score a bedroll in a tailgate tent with a chandelier should stop at Oxford's Big Bad Breakfast before heading to The Grove. The earliest riser in chef John Currence's college-town empire features house-cured Tabasco and brown sugar bacon and tomato gravy that you'll want to drink from the bowl. Load up. It's a 7:30 p.m. CT kickoff, and you'll need a good base.
So, how'd you do?
Here are the answers to the playoff committee quiz:
1. Fresno State's quarterback
3. Outside eye, offensive tackle
5. Ed Orgeron
8. Penn State
9. The Big 12
10. This is a trick question. Other than 1994 and 1995, when the old Gator Bowl was knocked down to make way for Whatever-They-Call-It-These-Days Stadium, the Florida-Georgia game has been played in Jacksonville since 1933.