Why the Vegas Bowl is a shot at Husky redemption
by Art Thiel
Husky Stadium scoreboard as the team headed to victory over UCLA in 2006 Credit: skidrd/Wikimedia Commons
In the traditional year-end compendiums, there's no doubt who was No. 1 in Seattle sports on the Steepest Fall Down the Stairs List.
In fact, the last playing-field glimpse most of us had of Washington quarterback Keith Price was him falling down backward in overtime at the Apple Cup, after letting a wounded duck of a throw plop into the thick arms of Washington State defensive lineman Toni Poli, who lumbered 65 yards with the interception.
That worst pass of Price's college career completed a bad junior season personally for him, set up a horrible 31-28 loss for the Huskies, which became the worst defeat of coach Steve Sarkisian's four-year tenure at Washington. Other than that, Viva Las Vegas!
Price is more thrilled with his shot at the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday than if his hotel room was filled with chorus girls. Fortunately in sports, opportunities for redemption are more frequent than boa feathers along the Strip.
Not only does Price, who had a brilliant sophomore year, get a chance to make up a little for a sad 2012 regular season, he has a chance to sell the 2013 season to a Huskies fan base that is reading a lot into the fateful fourth quarter in the Palouse, when UW blew a 28-10 lead to one of the most hapless outfits since the Home Alone burglars.
"We had a meltdown," Sarkisian told reporters in Las Vegas, where the Huskies meet Boise State at the 38,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium. Still, he remains defiant that a few minutes of wretched ball, which included seven defensive penalties in the final period, does not speak loudly for the condition of the program.
"One quarter of one game does not define our season, loss or win," he said. "It's the body of work over a season. You always like to beat your rivals, but it didn't happen."
"Whatever could go wrong, went wrong."
All of this is true, but the fact is that the what-went-wrongs popped up steadily throughout the season: Mediocre play from Price, a school-record number of penalties (106) and a talent deficit that glared against top teams. Four years in, Sarkisian hasn't solved for these shortcomings.
It is fair that he ask for patience, even though, in his first year, he said after beating USC that the program turnaround from 0-12 "isn't going to take as long as a lot of people think." He doesn't have to eat those words quite yet, but he is free to grab a snack.
Sarkisian is rightly proud that the Huskies beat two Top 10 teams; even though the Huskies managed to time their best games when eventual conference champ Stanford and Oregon State were upon major decisions to change quarterbacks in midseason. The Cardinal's Josh Nunes was terrible at the Clink and eventually lost his job to freshman Kevin Hogan. Oregon State's Sean Mannion came back too soon from an injury against Washington, and was replaced by Cody Vaz.
But, as with everything else in life, timing is everything. The Huskies caught a couple of breaks, and need not apologize.
The riddle of Price haunted the Huskies throughout the season. Some reasons were plausible: The departures of key playmakers such as Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse, numerous injuries to offensive linemen and wide receivers, and a tough early schedule. Price also suffered when offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, with whom he was close, left for the same job at Alabama (which plays Notre Dame for the BCS title next month).
The upshot was that Price seemed unable to manage the changes and remain effective. He threw a school-record 33 touchdown passes his sophomore season, but only 18 in 2012 and was neither the runner nor the passer who out-dazzled Baylor's Robert Griffin III in the Alamo Bowl last season.
"I don't think he lost confidence, but I think it wavered," Sarkisian said. "You question the way you're playing. But never once to [media] or me did he point the finger of blame. I think you can beat yourself up [too much]. We just had a different football team, and it changed the way we played."
By that Sarkisian meant that Washington finally had a defense that spit up on itself far fewer times than its predecessors. Sarkisian deserves more credit than he gets for firing friend Nick Holt and most of his defensive staff, choosing replacements who made personnel and tactical changes on the fly that improved numbers steadily throughout the season. The downside: a more balanced team meant less reliance on Price and the offense.
Price knows all of this. The question for the Las Vegas Bowl is whether he is prepared to do something about it.
"The way we went out [against WSU] wasn't the way we expected," he said. "I thought we played a good game until the final minutes. But one of our mottoes is 'Finishing.' We didn't do that. We have another chance to finish."
A big finish will help, but Price wants it known that he's not ashamed of a down year and, in fact, is appreciative of its long-term virtues. “I wouldn’t change this year for anything,” Price said. “Not even for the Heisman Trophy, because it's bettered me as a person.”
That virtue may become evident in 2013, but Sarkisian would be thrilled with a glimpse Saturday. "I'd much rather walk out of Sam Boyd Stadium with a 13-10 win," he said, "than walk out of the Alamo Bowl losing 67-56."
Price too. Besides, he has run out of stairs from which to fall down.