Steve Sarkisian, Keith Price looking to revive once-proud Washington
"There's a lot of Husky fans in Seattle, and all they talk about is the Don James era," said Washington's third-year starting quarterback. "We know we have big shoes to fill, but it's exciting we have a chance to get back to that level."
It may sound strange to a younger generation, but way back in the early 1990s -- long before Pete Carroll or Chip Kelly, Andrew Luck or Marcus Mariota -- Washington was the premier program in what was then the Pac-10. Under the direction of James, a.k.a. The Dawgfather, the Huskies appeared in three straight Rose Bowls from 1990-92, highlighted by a 12-0 co-national championship season in '91, and went to six Rose Bowls during his 18-year tenure.
"Don James was one of the all-time greats," said Stanford coach David Shaw, who played against star defensive lineman and future No. 1 NFL draft pick Steve Emtman and the Huskies as a Cardinal receiver in the early '90s. "What he built up at Washington was truly special."
But an NCAA improper benefits scandal involving several Huskies players led the Pac-10 to levy heavy sanctions in 1993, for which James resigned in protest. Since then, save for an 11-1 Rose Bowl campaign under Rick Neuheisel in 2000, the program has gradually slipped into irrelevance, bottoming out with Tyrone Willingham's 0-12 season in 2008. Adding insult to an already reeling fan base, Washington's hated border rival, Oregon -- a team it beat 17 out of 20 times from the mid-'70s to mid-'90s -- rose to the level of national prominence the Huskies once enjoyed.
"When I went around to various schools to call games, there was probably no place where a coach didn't ask, 'What happened to your alma mater?'" said former Washington quarterback Brock Huard (1995-98), now an ESPN analyst and Seattle sports talk host. "They were just in disbelief at the state of disrepair."
It's been a long climb back under fifth-year coach Steve Sarkisian. But with a 4-0 start that included an eye-opening 38-6 rout of Boise State in Week 1 as well as wins over Illinois (3-1) and Arizona (3-1), the Huskies have cracked the top 15 in the AP Poll for the first time in 11 years. Over the next two weeks, Price, national rushing leader Bishop Sankey and the Pac 12's top-rated defense will attempt to take the next step toward regaining early '90s-level prominence. Washington has consecutive showcase games against No. 5 Stanford in Palo Alto and No. 2 Oregon in Seattle.
"It's a good feeling going into these games knowing you have a roster with the proper depth needed to play two quality opponents," said Sarkisian. "Hopefully we can prepare well, and see if we're going to be good enough to win."
That Washington's slow, often frustrating rebuilding process under Sarkisian is now paying dividends seems a rarity in an era that places so much emphasis on instant gratification. Reasonable observers knew it would take time to restock the barren roster left behind by Willingham, but expectations accelerated when the Jake Locker-led Huskies improved from no wins to five wins in Sarkisian's 2009 debut season, which included an upset of then third-ranked USC. Expectations became even greater when the program reached and won its first bowl game in eight years (a 19-7 win over Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl) in Sarkisian's second campaign.
For three straight seasons, however, Washington has failed to get over the 7-6 hump. An embarrassing 67-56 loss to Baylor in the 2011 Alamo Bowl prompted Sarkisian to replace his entire defensive coaching staff. Last season, which included wins over ranked Stanford and Oregon State teams, ended in similarly bitter fashion when the Huskies blew an 18-point lead in a loss to 2-9 rival Washington State and then dropped a 28-26 heartbreaker to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
"Sometimes your record isn't indicative of the quality of team you had," said Sarkisian. "I thought that was the case last year. We came into season viewed as a 7-6 football team. We were better than 7-6, and I think we're starting to show that."
After several years of relying on younger players, the Huskies entered 2013 with 17 returning starters. Juniors and seniors account for 17 of the 22 starting spots on their two-deep. But the team's most important senior, Price, also came into the fall as its biggest question mark.
After finishing 2011 as the nation's seventh-leading passer -- completing 66.9 percent of his attempts with a 33-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- the Compton, Calif., native drastically regressed as a junior. His completion percentage dipped to 60.9, and his touchdown-to-interception ration checked in at just 19-to-13. He finished last season a forgettable 82nd nationally in pass efficiency.
In an effort to both restore Price's swagger and best utilize the talent around him, Sarkisian, a career-long pro-style coach who formerly served as Carroll's offensive coordinator at USC, installed the type of up-tempo, multiple-set style scheme that's now so prevalent throughout the Pac-12 and nationally. It certainly caught Boise by surprise. The Huskies ran 85 plays in their opener (up from an average 69.5 last season) and gained 592 yards. They've maintained a similar pace ever since.
The new system serves numerous benefits. Most notably, it seems to suit Price, who Sarkisian noticed played his best last year during two-minute drills.
"It allows me to focus in and not overthink things," said Price, who has completed a career-high 72.3 percent of his passes through four games. "I don't have enough time to second-guess my reads. You just go with it. It doesn't allow me to harbor on the bad things that happen in the course of the game."
Meanwhile Sankey, a junior who exploded late last season (he ran for 205 yards in the Las Vegas Bowl), has rushed for at least 161 yards in three of four games. He notched a career-high 40 carries in last week's rain-drenched 31-13 win over Arizona.
But perhaps the biggest surprise for the Huskies has been their defense. Just 17 games removed from that Alamo Bowl debacle, Washington ranks third nationally in yards per play allowed (3.8). Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has completed at least 70 percent of his attempts in every other game this year, but he managed just 9-of-25 completions against the Huskies on Sept. 14. Star Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey ran for 132 yards in the teams' matchup last Saturday, but he took 30 carries to do it.
Second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox -- formerly of Boise State and Tennessee -- has consistent performers at nearly every position, including linebackers Princeton Fuimaono (30 tackles) and Shaq Thompson (26), safety Sean Parker (three interceptions) and defensive end Josh Shirley (three sacks).
"We've got a lot of guys on the defensive side of the ball that have played a lot of football," said Sarkisian. "They're playing with a great deal of confidence, and a great deal of belief in the scheme."
Still, both the offense and defense will take a giant step up in competition this week against the defending Pac-12 champion Cardinal. Washington beat Stanford 17-13 last September, but that was before Shaw switched to quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is now 9-0 as a starter and currently ranks just ahead of Price as the Pac-12's leading passer. The Cardinal will present the most balanced offense Washington has faced and certainly the most physical defense.
Then, win or lose, the Huskies will turn around and host rival Oregon in a game that may garner the school's first-ever visit from ESPN's College GameDay. The Ducks have beaten Washington nine straight years, each time by at least a 17-point margin.
"The next three weeks will be the biggest three weeks of [Sarkisian's] coaching career here in Seattle," said Huard, adding in an Oct. 19 trip to No. 22 Arizona State. "These next three weeks will be a perfect test of where they stand."
The Huskies are clearly much improved from recent years, but this upcoming stretch will determine whether they're ready to contend for the Pac-12 title or perhaps a BCS at-large berth, or whether this will wind up as another Alamo or Holiday bowl year. If 2013 is in fact the team's long-awaited breakthrough, it coincides perfectly with the reopening of spectacularly renovated Husky Stadium.
Sadly, James, now 80, recently began chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. The current Huskies, with their strong running game and tenacious defense, bear some resemblance to the Hall of Fame coach's great teams of the early '90s -- albeit with a distinctly 2013-era offense. Now, Washington is finally playing in the type of marquee games that the program once won regularly.
"People are excited to be back on a national stage against a team that's played in three straight BCS games," said Sarkisian. "Our fans are fired up for the opportunity."
Twenty-year anniversary tributes to Seattle grunge bands are all the rage these days. Perhaps Washington football can add to the early-'90s nostalgia.