SEATTLE – Washington reaches the midway point of the season with the main issue its passing offense and main reliance its defense.
It’s an odd shift.
Through fall camp there appeared to be two assurances about the Huskies. First, that quarterback Keith Price was not a concern. Second, that the schedule was brutal. Only one of those has turned out to be true for Washington (3-3) as it prepares to shift into the second half of coach Steve Sarkisian’s fourth year.
Washington has played four teams – LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC – that have been ranked in the top 10 this season. In addition, each is a quality pass defense. The Tigers are fourth in the country in pass defense efficiency, Oregon 21st, USC 29th and Stanford 31st.
Price struggled against each. He threw two interceptions against both USC and Oregon, though only two were his fault. All his numbers are down compared with last season: passing yards per game, yards per completion, completion percentage and touchdowns. Washington is 102nd out of 120 NCAA FBS schools in passing yards.
So, the only thing not questioned, has become the biggest question.
Sarkisian argued Monday that Price’s numbers against Oregon, Stanford and USC this year were similar to last year’s, when he played with a much more effective running back (Chris Polk) and a more solidified offensive line. They are.
Price was 58-for-96 for 520 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions this season against that trio of opponents. Last year, he was 59-for-87 for 515 yards three touchdowns and three interceptions when half of Washington’s six losses came against that troika of top-end conference teams.
Price, like the team, made progress against mediocre competition last year. He threw 28 touchdowns in the 10 other games, including four in the Alamo Bowl. Washington went 7-3 in those games.
In theory, things this season are about to get easier. The Huskies’ five FBS opponents so far this season have a combined 25-7 record. Of the six remaining Pacific-12 Conference games, only one Washington opponent is currently in the top 25 (Oregon State is ranked eighth) and the teams are a combined 16-21.
“I’m trying to gauge exactly where we are as an offensive football team based on the opponents we have faced,” Sarkisian said. “So, I’m trying not to look at the sheer numbers but, rather, how are we doing against really top-flight opponents.”
The no-doubt improvement has come from the defense. Historically atrocious last season when it allowed a school-record 467 points, the Huskies are sixth in the conference, allowing 25.8 points a game. That’s down from 2011’s 35.9, which was plenty to get defensive coordinator Nick Holt fired.
But, one continuing trend for Washington under Sarkisian is that it has been beaten by 21 points or more at least twice each season by upper-tier teams. In 2010, Washington was blown out by three touchdowns or more four times. It has happened twice this season in just six games and has happened 10 times over the last three-plus seasons.
For comparison, Washington lost by 21 points or more 10 times from 2005-07, Tyrone Willingham’s first three seasons. However, Willingham was not able to fix things outside of those stompings the way Sarkisian has. Not to mention the winless 2008 season that sealed Willingham’s departure.
Willingham was 11-25 his first three seasons. Sarkisian was 19-19 with two bowl appearances coming into this year. Under Sarkisian, Washington has been able to win close games at an uncanny rate. The Huskies are 9-4 in games decided by eight points or less. So, it becomes an analysis of disposition: Is Washington’s ability to win close games something to be praised, or is the fact it has been so close to defeat several other times something to worry about?
The record shows that the second halves of the prior three seasons under Sarkisian have been less productive than the first halves, despite a striking four-game winning streak to close 2010. Washington is 14-10 in the first six games of each of Sarkisian’s three-and-a-half seasons. It is 8-12 the prior three seasons past the midpoint.
Which leaves Sarkisian at 22-22 as Washington’s coach with six games – four on the road – remaining this year.
“The thing I have been (most) impressed with this team the first half of the season is their resolve,” Sarkisian said. “This has been a gritty group.”
They’ll need all of that grit. The opponents’ record indicates opportunity is ahead this season. The last three seasons show it’s not easily grasped.todd.dybas@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas