Normally, the national college leader in touchdown passes is a Jedi warrior, or a figure of scout-talk reverence, such as Stanford’s Andrew Luck, or a quarterback at Hawaii or Bowling Green, where the football is traditionally passed in the manner of stolen middle-school love notes — about 25 times per period.
Instead, the leader this week is Keith Price, whose 11 touchdown passes in three games not only ties him with Bowling Green’s Matt Schilz (see, I told you) for the national lead, but is the most in any three-game stretch in University of Washington history.
This rather startling achievement for the successor to Jake Locker did not impress Price Monday.
“Guys,” he said flatly, “are getting open for me.”
A deferential fellow, Price. But with a completion rate of 65 percent and a competitive zeal of about 110 percent, Price deserves much credit for Washington’s modest success (2-1) to date. Still, he is wise not to get smug, because the 11 TD passes really don’t seem enough.
Not when he has to outscore whoever is playing against Washington’s defense.
After surrendering an average of 37 points a game, worst in the Pac-12, the Huskies are giving up 452 yards a game, 107th nationally. While injuries have played some small part, the growing sense is that the Huskies defense borders on the terrible, and may have a hard time getting much better.
Up front, returning linemen Alameda Ta’amu and Everrette Thompson have done little. New linebackers John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono are young, smallish and appear overwhelmed, and fifth-year MLB Cort Dennison is tough but limited. From a talent level, the secondary can be generously described as Pac-12 ordinary.
Frankly, it’s not an impressive group. Being adequate would be a worthy achievement, starting with Saturday’s game against Cal, which is to be UW’s conference opener for what was the Pac-10, now is the Pac-12 and by the 12:30 p.m. game time may be the Pac-14, –16 or -24 (check your Twitter accounts now for updates every few minutes).
Knowing trades and drafts are disallowed to this point (although the Pac-16 may have different ideas), coach Steve Sarksian is perssuaded that an attitude change might be sufficient.
“We need more guys, when they’re called upon to rush the passer, to go full-speed,” he said Monday. “You can’t be hesitant.”
The inability to annoy the opposing passer is an obvious shortcoming, as is the inability to annoy opposing rushers (Nebraska ran for 309 yards in Saturday’s 51-38 win). Such flaws have begun the fan criticism of the coordinator, Nick Holt, which seemed to pique the ire of Sarkisian.
“I trust Nick Holt. I believe in Nick Holt,” said Sarkisian, who normally does not speak in short, crisp sentences. “I believe in our defensive staff. They are tremendous coaches. I’ve seen them coach for years. And we will get better.”
After that figurative back of the hand to critics, Sarkisian was a little more expansive on his afternoon radio show on KJR.
“I don’t feel like we’re playing ferocious, relentless defense,” he said. “We’re still too cautious. We have to turn it up a notch. I know we’re better than we’re playing.
“I told the (players) today: ‘We’ve got to let the dogs off the porch.'”
For those wondering, Sarkisian grew up in southern California, not southern Alabama. But his channeling of Bear Bryant and Bobby Bowden suggests that he is searching, fairly desperately, for a message that gets through to his defensive players.
The need for urgency is plain: Price is hurting. After wearing a brace supporting his right knee for two games, he injured his left knee against Nebraska. Nothing serious or structural, but watching Price unable to get to half-speed, much less full speed, in the second half against Lincoln suggested a serious vulnerability.
As the brace switches knees this week (“the right is 90 percent, the left is 40-50 percent”), Price was open about his limitations.
“I can’t lie to you,” he told reporters. “I haven’t been able to run like I can. I heard a pop in the knee (in the game) . . . I never played without (using) my legs before. (Sunday) was tough. I was real stiff. But today I’m walking around.”
Five days before a game, walking around is good. By Saturday, running around will be necessary. In spite of the injury, Price’s surprising elevation of the passing game and his leadership have made him even a more valuable team asset, particularly since his backup, freshman Nick Montana, has no game experience.
If Price again is less than full speed, or simply unavailable, the pressure needs to be on someone besides Montana. Sarkisian would like to start counting on his defense, instead of relying on on-side or pooch kicks, as the Huskies did late in the game in Lincoln, partly in the hope of keeping the defense off the field.
Sarkisian owned up to the fact that his players aren’t listening too well. Referring to the opening play by Nebraska, a deep bomb over the head of cornerback Quinton Richardson, he said, “We need to listen to the coaching points better. When we remind (players) that one of the first two plays is going to be a play-action pass, and they are going to try and throw it over our head, it’s not OK to get beat deep. That’s not OK. So we’ve got to coach that better.”
If the dogs don’t get off the porch for the conference opener, Sarkisian’s sentences will get shorter and the season longer. Obedience school will come before college.