The Washington football team left Seattle on Thursday afternoon, taking off into pure blue sky. It landed in Chicago a few hours later carrying mantras and hope that this year will be different away from home.
The Huskies anticipate their search for answers on the road will not become a Kerouacian ambition. Rather, simplification and consistency are being dispatched as the fix-alls for a program that is 6-16 under Steve Sarkisian on the road and 7-18 when neutral sites are included.
When the 19th-ranked Huskies (1-0) face starting-to-believe Illinois (2-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Soldier Field, they want to ignore the spirits of former Chicago Bears greats Dick Butkus and Walter Payton.
Washington wants to pretend and, in doing so, strip the stadium bare. It’s just another massive concrete structure with 100 yards of field embedded in it. The fans are nameless and faceless.
Yes, indeed, it’s just another game.
“We just can’t make a big deal of it,” quarterback Keith Price said. “Everyone likes to make a big deal of us traveling, being on the road. It’s a new team. It’s a new year. We’re going to attack it just like a home game. There’s really no difference. It kind of has to be our livelihood, how we think and how we operate on the road.”
Price, a fifth-year senior, emphasizes he will treat the travel as standard fare. He expects that sense to spread over his teammates.
While he’s right that this is a new team and a new year, it brings different expectations just as it washes away the past.
The Huskies’ 38-6 victory over capable Boise State in the opener changes their circumstance. Their ranking is its highest since Sarkisian took over after the 2008 season. The win pushed his career record at UW to a pedestrian 27-25. Seventy-two percent of his losses have come on the road.
Sarkisian has tried varied solutions. The Huskies have put on suits, slicked back their hair and departed as young adults dressed a step beyond business casual.
In one of his more awkward attempts to normalize a road journey, Sarkisian brought a live tiger to practice before last season’s trip to LSU. The caged feline caused a stir at practice. Sarkisian emphasized the tiger that appears at LSU home games could be a surprising sight, and he didn’t want any distractions when the Huskies arrived for the first road game of the season.
Washington lost, 41-3. That was the end of live animals at practice.
This season, one in which increased pressure for a breakthrough is nipping at Sarkisian, provides a harrowing road schedule.
After facing Illinois, the Huskies travel to fifth-ranked Stanford, contender Arizona State, 16th-ranked UCLA and hard-to-figure Oregon State.
If there is hump-jumping this season, it will come through road wins against top-25 teams, of which the Huskies have two since Sarkisian took over.
“We’ve been talking about, it doesn’t matter where we play or the weather or the conditions or the field or what uniforms — or any of that,” Sarkisian said. “To do that, I think that has to apply to the way we travel. So when we’re at home, we wear our sweats with collared shirts, and we’ll do that on the road. So we’re trying to find consistency, and I think we’re getting really close to it.”
The return of preseason All-America tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins should help. So should the new up-tempo offense, which eliminates thinking and rewards reaction.
Price says he already has seen a mental toughness that he expects to be beneficial away from home. He said “we could have easily went in the tank” after his first-throw interception against Boise State. He didn’t. The team didn’t.
“It shouldn’t matter where we play or who we play or when we play,” Price said. “I think that’s the mindset of our team. Anytime, anywhere, anyplace, and hopefully it carries over.”
The first opportunity is Saturday.
NO. 19 WASHINGTON (1-0) AT ILLINOIS (2-0)
3 p.m., Soldier Field, Chicago
TV: Big Ten Network. Radio: 950-AM, 850-AM.
The series: Washington leads, 5-4.
What to watch: Washington controlling Illinois’ big plays. The Illini have plenty of gadget plays at their disposal in addition to a preference to throw deep passes. Expect Washington’s cornerbacks to play press coverage and attempt to jam Illinois receivers at the line. Offensively, a big dose of Bishop Sankey should serve the Huskies well against an aggressive Illinois defense. Big plays over the top to John Ross and Jaydon Mickens and down the seam to Austin Seferian-Jenkins should be available off play action.
What’s at stake: Though it’s the second game, a 3-0 start is really at stake for Washington. The Huskies host Idaho State next week before starting Pacific-12 Conference play at home against Arizona. Illinois will try to continue an uptick after it lost nine consecutive games to close the 2012 season.
The pick: UW, 38-17.
No. Name, Pos., Ht., Wt., Year
8 Hau’oli Kikaha, RE, 6-3, 250, RS-Jr.
Kikaha is largely responsible for proper running of the defensive “cage” UW wants to put around Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase. He needs to contain and pressure Scheelhaase.
88 Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, 6-6, 276, Jr.
First game of the year for the preseason All-American. Also a new toy for coach Steve Sarkisian and the up-tempo offense.
1 Sean Parker, S, 5-10, 195, Sr.
Illinois likes to take deep shots early. Parker will need to have his eyes right and not get caught peeking into the backfield.
No. Name, Pos., Ht., Wt., Year
2 Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, 6-3, 205, RS-Sr.
Has completed 74 percent of his passes. As important, he has been converting third downs at a high rate, often with scrambles.
6 Josh Ferguson, RB, 5-10, 195, RS-So.
Ferguson leads the Illini in yards rushing and receiving. His long run is 34 yards, and his longest reception is a 53-yard touchdown. He’s a threat.
12 Ryan Lankford, WR, 6-0, 175, Sr.
Illinois will run end-arounds with Lankford and send him deep. He’s averaging 17.9 yards per catch and 15.3 yards per rush.