CHICAGO — Steve Sarkisian cracked open a can of Diet Coke and held it in his left hand, arms crossed over his purple windbreaker, as he leaned against a gray brick wall in Soldier Field’s dark basement tunnel.

The Washington coach paused between questions from interviewers after his Huskies had beaten Illinois 34-24. He shrugged his shoulders. He gulped a few sips of his postgame treat. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, crack much of a smile after the first regular-season nonconference road victory of his head-coaching career.

It was a ho-hum, sure-that-was-pretty-good sentiment that everyone seemed to share as they shuffled out of the Washington locker room. And maybe, as Sarkisian has been hinting lately, that’s a signature ingredient in the maturation of this Washington Huskies team.

The 19th-ranked Huskies expected to beat Illinois here Saturday evening, and they did despite a late push by the Illini before an announced crowd of 47,312.

The Huskies (2-0) also expect better, even after another dominant offensive performance that featured 615 total yards — the sixth-best single-game output in program history — and a career game from tailback Bishop Sankey, who rushed for 208 yards on 35 carries.

“We’re in a good place as a team right now,” Sarkisian said. “As a team, they’re all aware of areas where they can improve individually (that will) in turn make us a better team. …

“They’re fired up and excited to be 2-0, sure, and to go on the road and win, but they also have enough maturity to say, ‘Hey, we can be better than this.’ ”

The Huskies bemoaned their stalled drives against Illinois (2-1), their 12 penalties, their two lost fumbles, their missed tackles.

“We were up 31-10 and we let them crawl back in the game,” said Keith Price, the senior quarterback who threw for 342 yards, hitting on 28 of 35 passes with two touchdowns and no turnovers. “We’ll grow from it. It’s going be scary, man, once we figure it out. …

“We’re going to be tough to beat.”

With Idaho State, a FCS division team, coming to Husky Stadium this Saturday, Washington is staring at its first 3-0 start since 2001. To that, Justin Wilcox shrugged, too.

“I mean, it’s never about the opponent,” said UW’s defensive coordinator. “We give all the credit in the world to Illinois and Idaho State and on and on and on, but we have to play up to our potential. So what are we doing during the week to do that — that’s what’s important. … That’s what’s critically important.”

From the outside, anyway, the victory over a Big Ten team away from home was a critically important step for this program. Never mind that this was technically a neutral site. Never mind that Illinois was a near-unanimous choice to finish last again in the Big Ten. Never mind that Illinois receivers dropped two sure touchdown passes in the first half.

Last year, with Washington crumbling to another 7-6 finish, one can’t help but wonder what might have happened in this type of game. Illinois was pulling out seemingly every trick play and storming back to a touchdown down at 31-24 with 9:10 left in the fourth quarter.

“Sometimes, in the past, we let our guard down at the end,” defensive end Josh Shirley said. “This time we came together as a team and finished.”

Washington, with its “Ferrari” offense, had been in cruise control in the third quarter, wearing down the Illinois front seven — much as the Huskies did against Boise State two weeks earlier — with three consecutive touchdown drives after leading 10-3 at halftime.

Sankey capped a quick-strike, seven-play, 75-yard drive — all on the ground to start the third quarter — with a 1-yard touchdown run, his second score of the game. On the next drive, backup tailback Jesse Callier wove into the end zone on a 39-yard score to push the UW lead to 24-10.

Less than three minutes later, Jaydon Micken took a short pass from Price and dived at the left pylon for a 9-yard touchdown to make it 31-10.

Senior cornerback Greg Ducre, beat late in the third quarter on a 72-yard touchdown pass that sparked the Illini rally, came up with the close-out play for the UW defense, picking off Nathan Scheelhaase on a botched double-pass with 3:51 left.

Sankey and the Huskies ran out the clock after that.

They celebrated afterward in the southeast corner of the stadium, helmets raised toward a large section of UW fans there. Not 25 minutes later, many of the Huskies already were pouring out of the locker room, headphones on, heads down, shuffling out of the dark tunnel and onto the next one.

Sankey’s busy day
Huskies running back Bishop Sankey, who finished with 208 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns, carried the ball 35 times, tied for fifth most in team history.
Name No. Opponent
Corey Dillon 38 Washington St., 1996
Corey Dillon 37 USC, 1996
Dennis Fitzpatrick 37 Washington St. 1974
Louis Rankin 36 Stanford, 2007
Corey Dillon 36 Stanford, 1996
Bishop Sankey 35 Illinois, 2013
Jacque Robinson 35 Texas Tech, 1982
Bishop Sankey 34 Utah, 2012
Chris Polk 34 Arizona, 2011
Chris Polk 34 Nebraska, 2010
Source: UW football media guide
Sankey’s busy day
Huskies running back Bishop Sankey, who finished with 208 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns, carried the ball 35 times, tied for fifth most in team history.
Name No. Opponent
Corey Dillon 38 Washington St., 1996
Corey Dillon 37 USC, 1996
Dennis Fitzpatrick 37 Washington St. 1974
Louis Rankin 36 Stanford, 2007
Corey Dillon 36 Stanford, 1996
Bishop Sankey 35 Illinois, 2013
Jacque Robinson 35 Texas Tech, 1982
Bishop Sankey 34 Utah, 2012
Chris Polk 34 Arizona, 2011
Chris Polk 34 Nebraska, 2010
Source: UW football media guide

Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or ajude@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter: @a_jude