For much of the nation, the last impression of Keith Price was also the first. On Dec. 29, 2011, newly christened Heisman winner Robert Griffin III was preparing for his final collegiate game in Baylor's Alamo Bowl showdown against Washington. Fans tuned in to watch one last dazzling performance.
And that's exactly what they saw -- only not from the man they expected. Over the ensuing 60 minutes, Price outshined Griffin, racking up 438 passing yards, 39 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns in a 67-56 loss.
In so doing, Price put the country on notice: He can light up the scoreboard with the best of them. And following his lead, Washington could be poised to make major noise in 2012.
After a 21-12 victory over San Diego State in Week 1, the Huskies will have their chance Saturday when they travel to Death Valley to take on No. 3 LSU. Here's an in-depth look at Washington's chances of hanging with the high-powered Tigers.
Few teams elicited as much dark-horse attention as Washington entering the season, and understandably so. For all their flaws, the Huskies possess most of the necessary ingredients to make a surprise run at the BCS.
That starts with Price. Though he flew relatively under the radar in 2011, he finished with 3,063 passing yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns, 12 more than Jake Locker threw during his heralded junior campaign in 2009. Price even burst out of the gate by orchestrating touchdown marches on his first two drives in 2012. Though Price slowed late against San Diego State-- after completing 13 consecutive passes in the first half, he connected on 12 of his final 21 attempts -- he showed flashes of NFL-caliber ability, something he'll look to harness more consistently against LSU.
Price is joined by a wealth of budding playmakers at the skill positions. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a 6-foot-6, 266-pound sophomore tight end, looks like an All-America in the making, while Kasen Williams, who won state titles in the high jump, long jump and triple jump at Skyline (Wash.) High, has established himself as a dangerous downfield threat. Tailback Bishop Sankey will be asked to produce following the departure of Chris Polk and a season-ending ACL injury to Jesse Callier, but Sankey may be up to the task. He gained 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason, and he tallied 66 yards and a touchdown (and a third-quarter fumble) in the win against San Diego State.
The Huskies are untested but dangerous. To challenge LSU, they'll have to speed up the growing process that began in Week 1. "It was good to come away with a win, but we have to look at the tape and make sure we're improving every week," said offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau. "That's gonna be imperative as we move forward."
The defense has much larger concerns. Washington finished a lowly 106th in the nation in total defense in 2011, allowing an eye-popping 453 yards per game. And it saved its worst performance for last. In the Alamo Bowl against Baylor, it allowed a staggering 777 yards -- an average of 9.1 yards per play.
Hope abounds, but so does uncertainty. Now it's barometer time. Heading into the biggest game of Steve Sarkisian's tenure, coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons, Washington has the stage. But is it ready to take the next step and emerge as a BCS contender?
Has Washington's defense really improved?
For all the fireworks Price and Co. produced, the Huskies were likely to end up on the wrong end of a scoring outburst last season. Among their defensive lowlights: giving up 51 points at Nebraska in September, surrendering 65 points at Stanford in October and allowing an average of 35.9 points per game, 108th in the nation.
In Week 1 against San Diego State, however, new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's unit looked surprisingly staunch. Not only did it limit the Aztecs to 327 yards of total offense, but it generated three turnovers, the second of which resulted in a 44-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Will Shamburger. Defensive end Talia Crichton looked impressive in pass pursuit, and cornerback Tre Watson, a transfer from Central Washington, reeled in an interception in his first defensive series. "They won the game for us this past weekend," said Price. "They're doing an awesome job creating turnovers and giving us opportunities."
San Diego State is obviously a far cry from LSU, which boasts a machine-like, four-pronged rushing attack that racked up 316 yards against North Texas in Week 1, but the effort was a step in the right direction. It showed that Washington is capable of shutting someone down, an indication that Saturday's contest might not be so one-sided.
Something else to keep in mind: The Huskies' showdown with the Tigers is just their first opportunity to spring a major upset. After this trip to Baton Rouge, they'll host Portland State before squaring off with Stanford, Oregon and USC as part of a grueling three-week stretch. This test at LSU -- even if it results in a loss -- could go a long way toward preparing Washington and its revamped defense to spoil a different top-five opponent's title hopes during a meeting in October.
• Washington's offensive line: Already faced with the daunting task of containing Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, the Huskies' front line suffered a setback when right tackle Ben Riva broke his forearm in Week 1. That could make protecting Price a tall order -- particularly without an established running game in place. "Obviously we're gonna have a lot of double teams and make sure that we know where those guys are at all times," said Kiesau.
• Freshman difference-makers: Former five-star safety Shaq Thompson may be Washington's highest-profile newcomer, but Jaydon Mickens is the one in position to make the biggest impact. The 5-10, 170-pound sparkplug collected 20 touchdowns as a senior at Dorsey (Calif.) High and amassed 63 yards on five touches (two receptions, three punt returns) during his debut on campus.
• Washington's practice tiger: If you haven't already heard, Washington brought a live tiger to Tuesday's practice. Here's Kiesau's explanation: "[LSU] wants to have their team mascot right outside the locker room of the visiting team. They do that for a reason. They want to get a little shock value out of you. Well what we tried to do was take that shock value out. Instead of being down there and all of our players going, 'Oh wow. Look at that tiger,' we've already taken that distraction out of it. It's a business trip. I think the biggest thing was eliminating any distraction."
SI.com caught up with Washington quarterback Price before his matchup with LSU's vaunted defense.
SI: Coming off your Week 1 win, how confident are you heading to play LSU?
KP: To be honest, we're not satisfied with that win at all. It almost felt like a loss last weekend. We had opportunities to really bury San Diego State, and we didn't take advantage. Part of that is my fault. We know that if we were playing LSU last week, we would've got our tails whooped.
SI: You've never faced a defense quite like LSU's, which finished second in the nation in total defense last year. Without giving too much away, how do you plan to attack the Tigers?
KP: We're just gonna be ourselves. Obviously they have one of the best defenses in the country, but I think we got a pretty good offense as well. We'll stick to our roles and just play football.
SI: Is there one thing you're focusing on?
KP: Completions. Just taking what they give us. Not getting caught up in the pass rush and dropping my eyes. Just playing my style of football.
SI: Many analysts label you as a dual-threat quarterback. How would you characterize your skill set?
KP: I'm a pass-first quarterback. I'll never be a Michael Vick or a Robert Griffin, anything like that. I'll run when I have to, when I need to and to extend plays. But otherwise, I'll be in the pocket.
SI: What's something most of the nation doesn't know about you?
KP: I used to take tap dance classes when I was younger. I might have been in sixth or seventh grade.
SI: Is that why you're so nimble on your feet?
KP: [Laughs] That's probably why. I'm pretty smooth.
Washington has the makings of a formidable underdog, with an immensely talented quarterback, a slew of explosive receivers and a defense that appears to have put its worst days behind it. There's just one problem: It's playing LSU. And Washington is still nowhere near Les Miles' squad's level.
The game could be closer than anticipated, but look for LSU to pull away late. The combination of Kenny Hilliard, Eric Reid and Odell Beckham Jr. will overwhelm the visiting Huskies. But that won't be the end of the story. Given the makeup of its schedule, Washington is well positioned to wreck havoc on the current BCS hierarchy.
Nine months after his breakout Alamo Bowl, Price is about to enter the spotlight again. And just like in that game, he's ready to steal the show. "I always knew I could play," Price said. "I guess you guys finally see what I'm capable of."
Prediction: LSU 34, Washington 20