Keith Price and the offense have struggled in the first half of the Washington Huskies' season. But an improved defense has the Huskies still in position to play in a bowl game.
The first half of the season might simply have shown that the Huskies, to quote noted football sage Denny Green, are who everyone thought they were.
Picked to finish third in the Pac-12 North and generally considered as a team capable of winning seven or eight games, that’s where Washington appears to be entering the second half of the season — good enough to pull a home upset of a top-10 team (Stanford), but not yet to the level to consistently beat elite teams, especially on the road.
And UW’s 3-3 record means the real story of this season remains to be written. Before the Huskies embark on the second half Saturday night at Arizona, though, let’s review what we saw in the first half of the season.
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Cornerback Desmond Trufant. An argument could also be made for tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. With 29 receptions, he’s on his way to breaking the UW record for catches by a tight end (48 by Jerramy Stevens in 2000). But Trufant, along with playing at an all-conference level, has been the leader of the Huskies’ improved secondary and defense.
After allowing a school-record 284.6 passing yards a game last season, the Huskies rank second in the Pac-12 in pass defense at 172.7. To be sure, UW has played teams that led with the run, and also have had some games that turned into early blowouts, causing teams to run more. Arizona, which leads the Pac-12 in passing at 370.8 yards a game, might provide the truest test of how improved the secondary really is. But Trufant has unquestionably been a standout, as his play last week on USC’s Marqise Lee (held to just two catches) illustrated.
Linebacker Travis Feeney. The redshirt freshman was a backup safety when fall camp began, having been limited in the spring due to offseason shoulder surgery. He was moved to linebacker midway through fall camp as new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox sought players with more athleticism there. He’s been a revelation, earning a starting role and ranking eighth in the Pac-12 in tackles at seven a game (in Pac-12 games only, Feeney is UW’s leading tackler and fourth in the conference at 8.7 a game).
Runner-up: Running back Bishop Sankey. There were high hopes for Sankey entering his sophomore season. Still, it was unclear how he would adjust to being the No. 1 tailback after a season-ending injury sidelined Jesse Callier. Sankey has proved up to the task, with three consecutive 100-yard games. He ranks sixth in the conference in Pac-12 games only with 100.7 yards a game, going against the tough run defenses of USC, Oregon and Stanford.
Instead of any one player, we’ll hand this to the passing attack. The easy target for blame from the outside is quarterback Keith Price, whose numbers are all down significantly from last season. Price had 21 touchdowns in the first six games last year on his way to a school-record 33, but has seven through six games this year. But the problems in the passing game are teamwide. The line, down three starters due to injury, has struggled to protect, and no consistent receiving threats have emerged other than Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams. The Huskies will be facing defenses that have given up more yards passing than some of their earlier opponents. So in a week or two, we’ll be hearing about the revival of UW’s passing game. For the sake of the season, that needs to happen.
Who knows how the Stanford game might have turned out had UW not decided to go for it on fourth-and-one at its own 39 on the last play of the third quarter, down 13-3? But UW did, and Sankey burst through a hole for a 61-yard touchdown that swung the momentum of the game and spurred UW to a 17-13 victory that stands as the highlight of the first half.
Runner-up: Williams’ 35-yard touchdown catch and run that gave UW the winning points vs. Stanford.
By the numbers
5.8 UW’s yards per pass attempt, lowest in the Pac-12. Last year, UW averaged 8.2.
54.2 Percentage of passes completed against UW’s defense, second-lowest in Pac-12. Last year, UW allowed foes to complete 62.8 percent of passes.
A view from the coach
Steve Sarkisian, asked to assess the first half of the season, said, “Probably the thing I have been (most) impressed with this team is their resolve. This has been a gritty group. We understand where we are at, and we are going to go to work (this week) and practice our tails off and play a good football game on Saturday.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com