On a sloppy, Sankey-centric day at Montlake, the most significant mythical presence was not that of the boisterous 12th man.
More like the 13th man; in this case, a woman — Mother Nature.
Playing under her terms — wet and windy, to a degree notable even in our soggy neck of the woods — up-tempo was downsized.
Call it spread with a splash, hurry-up with a hose-down. Merely catching a snap was a challenge, at times. The passing game became instantly problematic, with the Huskies picking off a B.J. Denker pass in the first series, and Arizona doing the same to Keith Price not long after.
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“In the first half, I was like, goodness — I’ve probably never played in that type of weather,’’ Price said. “I just did my best to make the right decisions, tried not to turn the ball over, and be efficient and manage the game. That’s all I wanted to do today.”
Amid rain that at times came down in sheets, the Huskies prudently allowed running back Bishop Sankey to carry their water. Having been allowed to refresh with a four-carry day last Saturday against Idaho State, Sankey turned wondrous workhorse on Saturday.
The result, 40 carries and 161 yards later, was a crucial Husky win, 31-13, over Arizona that set them up for the gauntlet ahead: Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State in successive weeks.
No back in Husky history has carried more times in one game than Sankey did on Saturday, breaking Corey Dillon’s previous mark of 38 in 1996.
“He was,” said Price, “a warhead tonight.”
For a long stretch in the first half, it seemed like the Husky playbook had been reduced to “Sankey left,” “Sankey right,” or “Sankey up the middle.”
“The weather kind of forced our hand a little bit, the way we had to play the game,’’ Husky coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Sixty-one rush attempts — someone has to carry the ball. I don’t know if that would have been the ratio if we had better weather, but you play the hand you’re dealt, and those were the conditions we had.”
Sankey’s tiptoe running style, biding his time until a hole opens up and then exploding through it, was perfectly attuned to the slop. In a game that called for a mudder, he was sure-footed and relentless.
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t too bad,’’ Sankey said of the footing. “We’re kind of used to it. We’ve practiced in the rain before, so it wasn’t too tough.”
The Huskies diversified in the slightly more-hospitable second half, most notably on a 49-yard completion to a wide-open Kevin Smith on a 90-yard scoring drive.
In this one, Washington always had answers, including effective special-teams work and a spirited defensive performance that helped erase memories of last year’s Debacle in the Desert.
A year ago in Tucson, the Huskies were humbled by the Wildcats’ frenetic attack, suffering a beatdown that galvanized Sarkisian to revamp his own offense in their image. Arizona was a blur that day, rendering Washington virtually helpless.
On the other side of the ball last year, it was a difficult day for Price. His struggles against Arizona’s unyielding pressure forced so many mistakes — 23 incomplete passes, two interceptions and a lost fumble — that Sarkisian felt necessary to have a long, heart-to-heart talk with him about trust in the middle of the game.
Flash forward to Saturday, and for much of the first half, the Wildcats had the blur rinsed right out of them. Playing on a slip-and-slide field with a pass-averse quarterback will do that to a team.
The southpaw Denker refers to himself as “Vanilla Vick,” the vanilla on Saturday apparently referring to Arizona’s offense. Not that the Huskies were much spicier. Mother Nature didn’t much abide by flash and sizzle in this one.
“The weather made it one of those grind-it-out, meat-and-potato games, where both teams had to run the ball, and both defenses knew it,” Sarkisian said. “It was just really cool.”
As for Price, he threw for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a satisfying bounce back from one of his lowest moments as a Husky.
“I wouldn’t call it revenge,” Price said, “but we did definitely owe them something.”
The Huskies paid off the debt by being, as Sarkisian admitted, “a little bit one-dimensional at times where we were just ground-and-pound and running the ball.”
Which was just fine with Sankey.
“We knew we had to come out and pound the rock, the way the weather was,” he said. “I think we did a good job sticking with it the whole game and constantly just moving the chains.”
Price said that early in the contest, he gave Sankey “the look” — the one that said, I’m going to keep feeding you.
“He didn’t mind,” Price said.
Said Sankey: “I had to dig deep. Something we preach here is mental toughness, and that’s what I was trying to do for the team.”
On this miserable night, survival and conquering the elements, were the priorities. And the Huskies accomplished both feats with aplomb, Sankey very much.