Keith Price’s ever-present smile disappeared in an instant. The idea of enduring another gut-wrenching, back-and-forth season opener similar to last season’s 30-27 win over Eastern Washington is unacceptable to the Washington Huskies’ junior quarterback and team leader.
The San Diego State Aztecs should be a formidable opponent tonight at CenturyLink Field. But this game is about the Huskies playing to their capability. Last year against EWU, Washington didn’t do so and nearly got upset.
“I just know that we have to play better,” Price said.
Coach Steve Sarkisian didn’t have a definitive answer after last season’s opener. But he’s had some time to think about it now.
“I just thought in general we might have spent ourselves a little too much in the buildup to the game,” he said. “I don’t know if we had the right type of energy and enthusiasm that I’m accustomed to our team having once the game kicked off. We’ll try to monitor that a little bit better and build to kickoff rather than exhaust ourselves before the game even begins.”
Washington will debut its retooled coaching staff and new defensive scheme under coordinator Justin Wilcox.
“They’re tired of beating up on each other,” Wilcox said. “It’s time to go play somebody else. It’s important for us to make sure we’re getting the screws tightened this week and getting our alignments and stuff we’ve worked on (in the) fall, and now gearing it toward another opponent.”
Much was made of the Huskies’ defensive deficiencies last season. The Eastern game was a sign of things to come with Eagles quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell throwing for 473 yards and three touchdowns.
Wilcox is hoping for a much better showing. But he won’t make any guarantees.
“We haven’t been perfect by any means and probably won’t be – to save you some suspense,” Wilcox said. “But I think their attitude has been great, and we want them to go out there and play fast and confident every snap and react to some of the adversity that’s going to hit them.”
Sarkisian said he doesn’t know what to expect. The defense looks better, but how the players will react under the duress of a game is an unknown.
“I think there is always curiosity,” he said. “You feel like you’ve got a great handle. But things change when the lights come on. Some guys play better than they have played in practice and some guys don’t play quite as good as they have practiced. So I try to go in with an idea of what might happen, but I try also not to be shocked when things go a different direction than the way I envisioned.”
Sarkisian does expect Price to play well. A year ago, the then-sophomore was an unknown commodity, making his second career start. And it affected the way Sarkisian called plays.
“I know that we won’t be nearly as conservative the first game around as we were last year,” he said.
Price established himself as not only one of the top quarterbacks in the Pacific-12 Conference, but also in the country. He’s a solid decision maker, who throws with record-setting accuracy.
“I feel like Coach Sark can just about throw just about anything at me,” Price said. “I’m prepared, and if I don’t get it the first time I’m going to make sure I get it. I’m going to keep preparing and I’m going to make sure our receivers and our offensive line are up to speed on what we’re doing as well.”
UW’s offense won’t have it easy. San Diego State runs a 3-3-5 defense that features plenty of pre-snap movement. The alignments and personnel packages can be unpredictable.
“They like to mix around their fronts,” Price said. “They are pretty set on the back end in the secondary, but they play with a lot of aggression and try to mix you up with different fronts.”
But Price was quick to point out that the schemes, blitzes and all the minutiae are part of a greater mindset of execution.
“It’s not so much about opening up the playbook or whatever people want to say – it’s just about executing our game plan,” he said. “That’s the main thing. If we do our job we have a pretty good chance of winning.”
SAN DIEGO STATE AT WASHINGTON
7:30 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 950-AM, 850-AM, 102.9-FM
The series: The two teams have met twice, and Washington is 2-0. The first meeting came in 1982, when then-No. 1-ranked Washington defeated SDSU, 46-25, at Husky Stadium. The most recent meeting came in 1997, when the Huskies, ranked No. 2, defeated the Aztecs, 36-3.
What to watch: All eyes will be focused on Washington’s defense under a revamped staff led by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. For the Huskies to improve, the defense needs to play better. So far all signs indicate that it should be better. The Huskies have shifted personnel, changed attitudes and brought in a new scheme. In particular, watch for the overall speed of the defense. By moving John Timu to middle linebacker, Travis Feeney to outside linebacker and inserting Shaq Thompson at the nickel back, the Huskies will be faster than any defense they’ve had under fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian. Thompson has the potential to be a game-changing player for the defense. Timu has had such a good fall camp he was named team captain as a sophomore. Offensively, the Huskies will begin life after Chris Polk. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey will get carries at running back, but play attention to who has better success running between the tackles. That player may be the one who gets more carries in the future. San Diego State plays a 3-3-5 defense that presents problems as players line up all over and shift before the ball snaps. Center Drew Schaefer and quarterback Keith Price will be in charge of checks and audibles based on that pre-snap movement.
What’s at stake: The Huskies want to get off to a good start this season with a win. It makes it more important with LSU looming next week. With a new defensive staff and a revamped scheme and attitude, having some early success defensively would be ideal.
The pick: Washington, 35-17