Despite the various incentives — full house, Senior Day, reaching eight wins, elevating above a dork-bowl selection, making the Cougars shut the hell up over the past year’s Apple Cup — the Huskies came out Friday as if it were the start of the season instead of the end of it. Even Keith Price, the fifth-year senior playing his final game at Husky Stadium, was haywire.
“He had the jitters,” said Micah Hatchie. “He had to get it together.”
“He was actually off a little mentally,” said coach Steve Sarkisian. “But he regrouped.”
Down 10-3 at the half to increasingly confident Washington State, Price, whose playing health was in some doubt as of Friday morning, needed to bust a big one. This was, after all, a team that put up 69 points at Oregon State Saturday behind freshman Cyler Miles, and now was dieseling under Price’s command.
The Huskies in the first half converted one of six third-down attempts, had seven first downs and 144 yards of total offense. They appeared in no danger of repeating the year-old gaffe in Pullman, in which they blew a 28-10 fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime. Washington seemed in little danger of acquiring a lead to blow.
In their first possession of the second half, the Huskies were at their own 20-yard line, facing third-and-five. The obvious need to pass was going to bring an obvious blitz by the Cougars, and sure enough, the swarm was upon him when he floated a short pass to RB Bishop Sankey, conveniently located behind a convoy of blockers.
Forty yards later, the screen pass turned out to be the call of the game. Four plays later, Price hit TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins on a skinny post route 18-yards away in the end zone to tie the game at 10. Nine minutes after that, the Huskies were up 20-10 and on their way to a 27-17 triumph over the Cougars.
“If we kept them pinned back, it was going to keep the pressure on them,” said Cougars coach Mike Leach of the Sankey screen. “Then, we let them off the hook . . . huge play for them.”
Speaking of shutting up everyone, the breakthrough moment led to the breakthrough victory for Sarkisian, his first eight-win season in his five years at Washington, permitting him the opportunity to invoke the nee-ner, nee-ner privilege.
“I’m happy for you guys to not ask me about it any more,” he said, smiling. “Honestly, the number wasn’t a big deal to me. I’m just tired of answering questions about it. We’re a better team today than we were a year ago, and a year ago we were a better team before that.”
That may be true, but a relentlessly impatient cabal of boosters, dissatisfied with anything less than a championship, were holding the Montlake guillotine over Sarkisian’s head because of losses to four conference big boys — Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA.
Those defeats can’t be fixed, but should Washington win its bowl game, a 9-4 record should inoculate him against the fire-the-coach virus. And ironically, put his name back in the top-five list for the vacancy at USC.
That’s the way it goes in the wildly erratic, irrational world of college ball — fireable one week by your host, hireable by a predator the next.
Perhaps as significant as affecting his own fate at Washington, Sarkisian’s loss last season to WSU and the stout effort the Cougars put in Friday has done nothing but buoy Leach’s career. He recently was given a contract extension through 2018, and nothing that happened at Husky Stadium will diminish that judgment.
The Cougars’ defensive line dominated Washington’s offensive line in the first half. Only Sankey’s exceptional talent — 200 on 34 carries plus the big screen pass — and Price’s experience separated the teams. The Cougars trailed 20-17 inside the final eight minutes before Halliday’s urgency resulted in interceptions on WSU’s final two possessions.
“If we are all one play better today, this is a different game,” Leach said. “Down the road, if we are three plays better, it’s significantly better.”
As it is, the Apple has been split over the past 10 seasons — a 5-5 decade in which both schools hit bottom and are now resurfacing. Friday was the first meeting in that time in which both schools had winning records for the game.
Evening the decade’s score fell to Price, who a year ago made the killer interception that WSU turned into the game-winning field goal in overtime, and two weeks ago had a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the second half of the UCLA game and all of the Oregon State game.
On UW’s decisive, next-to-last possession, he fooled the house on first-and-goal at the Cougars 2. Instead of the obvious read-option handoff to Sankey, he kept the ball and strolled into the end zone. On that one, the defense may as well have stayed in Pullman.
“It’s been a great journey for Keith,” Sarkisian said of the first player he sought out after being named head coach. “The last five years of his life are going to shape him for the next 60-70 years. He’s been through a lot — physically, emotionally. Every time the guy shows his tremendous character. He stands tall and doesn’t waver. He doesn’t point a finger.
“We’re proud he’s our guy.”
After six quarters of bad apples, Price finally had a golden delicious.