If there is such a thing as an up-tempo offense, there must be a down-tempo, too. The Washington Huskies offered up the latter Saturday in Tempe, AZ: A five-year-old reminder of the Tyrone Willingham days. It should force a change at quarterback.
A near-complete breakdown on offense — a minus-5 yards rushing for a team averaging nearly 250 a game — forced the defense to play 39 minutes against the third formidable attack in three weeks. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t up to it. Most everything built during a 4-0 seasonal start came crashing down in Arizona State’s 53-24 thumping that was the third loss in a row to a top-tier Pac-12 Conference team.
Five years into the Steve Sarkisian regime, the Huskies aren’t in that top tier.
Starting with a 31-28 road loss to Stanford and followed by a 45-24 home loss to second-ranked Oregon, the Huskies were ground down physically and emotionally, leaving little gumption for the Sun Devils.
Chief victim was quarterback Keith Price. Playing with a sore thumb injured against Stanford, Price, the most accurate passer in Huskies history, overthrew several receivers in the first half. He was pounded by a formidable Arizona State rush that exploited the injury absence of left guard Dexter Charles to sack Price six times and deck him after release on numerous other occasions.
After a sack that seemed to injure his hip, Price, who completed 16 of 39 passes, came out of the game and went to the locker room. X-rays revealed no break in the thumb, but the cumulative toll of the past three games may force a change because Price is unable to deliver the ball accurately, for reasons of health or otherwise.
“We’ve just got do a better job,” Sarkisian told KJR-AM radio. “We’re frustrated with the overall passing game. As a staff, we have to put players in a position to be successful, and we didn’t do that tonight.”
Price finally was replaced in the fourth quarter by Cyler Miles, the redshirt-freshman backup, but it was puzzling why Sarkisian kept the obviously diminished starter in the game after the outcome was long decided.
“He had the thumb issue again, then he gets twisted up (during a sack) and gets hurt,” Sarkisian said. “We have to really assess our passing game. Right now, it’s not good enough to win against good football teams.”
Asked whether a change was imminent, Sarkisian said, “We have to assess his health and see where he’s at from a standpoint of performing.”
As always, Price, who took fearsome beatings against Stanford and Oregon, would not own up to being too injured to play well.
“It’s different,” he said of his thumb injury. “If I’m healthy enough to make the throws, then I should play. If I wasn’t healthy enough, I wouldn’t play.”
As a fifth-year senior with unquestioned toughness, Price never wants to admit he’s too hurt too play, and the coaching staff doesn’t want to give up on his experience and talent. But since the next two opponents, Cal and Colorado, wrapped around a bye, are the conference’s two worst teams, an opportunity is there to let Price heal over three weeks to prepare for UCLA, Oregon State and Washington State.
Even during the Huskies’ game-opening drive to a touchdown and a 7-0 lead, Price overthrew two receivers who could have had touchdown catches, then completed a pass to tight end Josh Perkins, who would have scored, except his leap to catch Price’s ball led to a stumble and fall. Something was wrong from the start.
“They brought pressure all day,” Price said. “A couple times I missed throws I usually make. If I hit those, we could have backed them out of those pressures.”
Apparently unworried about Price, the Sun Devils loaded up to stop RB Bishop Sankey, who came into the game as the nation’s leading rusher, averaging 149 yards a game, but finshed with 22 yards in 14 carries, with a long of nine. Against a better defense the previous week, Sankey ran for 167 yards in 28 carries against the Ducks.
Price marveled at the Sun Devils’ aggressiveness.
“They played hard,” he said. “I felt every shot. They were nasty. They out-physicaled us.”
Especially in the second quarter, when Washington had five three-and-out possessions as ASU scored 26 points (29 unanswered in the half). The imbalance overloaded a Washington defense that began play in 85-degree weather and, despite some stout play early in the red zone, wore out. After allowing 631 yards to Oregon last week, they allowed 585 in 93 plays to the Sun Devils.
It was not how Sarkisian imagined things when he said Monday, “We’re going to go out in the second half and play a great half of the season and it starts Saturday. We’re going to come out of the blocks playing fast, physical football.”
That wasn’t going to happen with an injured QB on the road against a solid team. It’s remarkable Sarkisian couldn’t see that.