Robert Griffin III put a final bow on his outstanding career at Baylor in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. Just three weeks removed from winning the university’s first Heisman Trophy, Griffin registered a passing and rushing touchdown, and engineered the Bear offense to a 67-56 win.
As fitting as the conclusion was for Griffin’s season, it was equally so for UW.
The Huskies finished the 2011 regular season at 7-5 and third in the Pac-12 Conference’s North division. Quarterback Keith Price had what head coach Steve Sarkisian calls “maybe the best year for a sophomore ever in this conference,” and running back Chris Polk was a dynamo.
Yet, the team’s glaring defensive inadequacies prevented Washington from returning to the benchmark of success that the program had established throughout the 1990s.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian was hired before the 2009 campaign to reestablish UW as a Rose Bowl-caliber program. In that pursuit, he made wholesale changes on his defensive staff after 2011. Out was Nick Holt, and in came Justin Wilcox.
The two question marks lingering over the program before the 2012 season were how the defense would progress under Wilcox, and who would fill the very big shoes Polk left behind.
“I will say this about Justin Wilcox last year and the job he did,” Sarkisian said at last Friday’s Pac-12 media day. “He [put] our best players on the field in a position to be successful.”
Sarkisian rattled off one example of Wilcox retooling the Huskies’ makeup after another. It’s an impressive list of incremental changes that made worlds of difference.
“Shaq Thompson moving from safety to outside linebacker; Travis Feeney moving from safety to outside linebacker; playing more of a 3-4 principle so Danny Shelton can play a head-up nose on a center instead of in a gap on an edge; putting Josh Shirley in a stand-up position rather than his hand on the ground all the time,” Sarkisian said.
Rather than trying to fit the square pegs of his players into the round holes of a particular system, Wilcox adapted to suit his athletes. The result was an astounding turnaround. In 2011, Washington surrendered 35.9 points and 453.3 yards per game. Last year? Just 24.2 points and 357.4 yards per.
The Huskies were also more adept at creating turnovers. The 33 UW gained in 2012 ranked sixth in the FBS, and was an improvement of 10 over the previous season.
Schematic changes laid the foundation, while Wilcox and Co. instilled a mindset in the players, which safety Sean Parker said made them “a lot more aggressive.”
For Parker, that aggressiveness manifested most notably in a 20-17 defeat of No. 7 Oregon State. Parker flew around the field, dislodging passes from receivers, hitting opponents hard and snagging an interception.
But Washington’s defensive strides were never more apparent than in Week 5, when the Huskies scored their biggest win of the season and arguably of the Sarkisian era. UW knocked off eventual Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champion Stanford 17-13, all while keeping the Cardinal offense out of the end zone the entire night.
That game showed just how good Washington’s defense can be. And Sarkisian wants to see more of the same. He said the 2013 unit has “room for improvement,” but he also believes it is taking shape.
“We need to defend the no-huddle spread better than we did last season, and I think we will. Justin’s a bright guy, and we have a tremendous defensive staff,” Sarkisian said. “I think our best days are still ahead of us on defense.”
The night of the Stanford win provided another resounding answer for not only the 2012 Huskies, but this season’s team as well.
That Thursday, running back Bishop Sankey solved the Polk dilemma with 144 yards rushing, including a 61-yard touchdown scamper that provided a vital momentum shift. His long dash began the process of putting both Polk, and the Week 1 injury of Jesse Callier, in the Huskies’ rearview.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the best, because he only got better as the year went on,” Sarkisian said of Sankey. “The best game he had was his last one.”
Sankey scored a rare coup, winning Most Valuable Player honors in a bowl game defeat. His 205 yards rushing, 74 yards receiving performance performance against Boise State in December’s MAACO Bowl Las Vegas put a cap on an outstanding season. Sankey went for 1439 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on the year.
“He’s maturing. His confidence got better and better and better as the year went out,” Sarkisian added. “He’s poised for a really good season. Where his numbers are at, I don’t know. I’d like to give some other guys carries and take some of that load off of him, but if he doesn’t let us, he doesn’t let us. And that’s the beauty of competition.”
That’s also the beauty of depth, of which Washington has plenty at running back. In addition to Sankey, Callier returns. He was the Huskies’ No. 2 ball carrier in 2010 and 2011. Deontae Cooper, a four-star recruit when he signed with UW, is also working his way back from injuries.
With a run game established and the defense only improving, the spotlight on Price at quarterback only intensifies.
Much was made of Price’s struggles in 2012. Rumors of a benching persisted amid a three-game skid in October, but Sarkisian remained steadfast in his commitment to the junior.
And why wouldn’t he? As Sarkisian said himself, Price had a sophomore season that would stack up against any in recent Pac history.
With Washington returning a loaded roster and eyes turning squarely on Price, the quarterback could easily have a much different demeanor from what he exhibited at Pac-12 media day.
But rather than adopt a Me-Against-The-World outlook, Price was all smiles. Perhaps showing what senior maturity has done for him, Price seems to take his 2012 struggles and criticisms as a challenge, rather than let them foster a chip on his shoulder.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he said. “I prepared myself this off-season. I have a lot to prove to myself, [and] I have a lot to prove to you guys.”
That he’s already proven it once before should make the job a little easier. Price completed more than two-thirds of his pass attempts for 33 touchdowns and nearly 3100 yards in 2011. Specifically reproving his ability to lead, which Price said is a point of emphasis for him, may not just mean improved individual statistics.
After the strides other units within the Husky football team took in 2012, Price’s reemergence could mean the program’s first Rose Bowl in 13 years.