October 16, 2011

Time will tell just how good these Huskies are

This win doesn't need excuses, promises of playing better or an apology.

This win Steve Sarkisian can embrace.

This win, a 52-24 blowout of an overmatched and outplayed Colorado team, was just what Sarkisian had promised. It was a return, as he had hoped, to Husky football.

For the first time in 10 years, UW is 5-1, worthy of being ranked. For the first time since 1997, back when Jim Lambright was head coach, Washington is off to a 3-0 start in conference. And for the first time in school history, Washington has scored 30 or more points in each of its first six games.

The Huskies' offense is explosive - quarterback Keith Price tossed four touchdowns Saturday, giving him 21 for the season and tying him fourth all-time on the single season list with Jake Locker.

"He's exceeded even my expectations," Jermaine Kearse, who caught one touchdown pass, said about UW's sophomore quarterback.

And the Huskies defense is at last playing with some smack, gang tackling and swarming to the ball. Washington sacked Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen five times for a minus 47 yards. After eking out a 30-27 win against Eastern Washington in the season opener when the Huskies went sackless, Sarkisian criticized his team for playing tentatively, scared of making a mistake. There was nothing tentative or timid about the way Washington played Saturday.

"We want to play physical and play fast," safety Austin Glenn said. "If you're playing scared, bad things happen. You're thinking negative. So, we have to go out there and play fast."

Washington was fast and physical against Colorado, scoring on its first six possessions of the game to take a 38-10 halftime lead. Even Kevin Smith got into the end zone, scoring on a 22-yard run midway through the first quarter. It was his first TD as a Husky and the first rushing touchdown scored by a Husky other than Chris Polk or Jake Locker since Sept. 12, 2009.

As 15-point favorites, there was nothing surprising about Washington's victory Saturday. Other than how dominating it was - on offense and defense.

Without a question, Washington's 28-point win, its 31-17 edge in first downs and 562-269 edge in total offense, was convincing. But does all of Price's touchdown glitter and UW's 5-1 start mean this is a conference championship team? Or even a better than average team? Is Washington Rose Bowl bound?

Well, just three years after a winless season, they are at least winners. Which is saying a lot. But are they champion caliber? Consider this. UW's three conference wins have come against teams with a combined 0-7 conference record going into Saturday's games. Against an Eastern Washington team that lost its first four games, the Huskies needed an interception in the end zone in the closing seconds to ice the win.

So, is Washington's 5-1 record a product of being good or are the Huskies the benefactors of an easy schedule? Maybe it's a little of both.

Actually, an easy schedule has given them time to become good. A defense that starts three sophomores and two freshmen and only three seniors has grown up since that nail-biter against EWU. And the offense, with Price's poise and Polk's power, has appeared at times unstoppable, averaging 37.0 points a game.

"We want people to feel us," Glenn said. "We want people to know we're going to hit them. We want them to say, 'Wow, they were flying around. They're playing fast.'"

Rodney Stewart, Colorado's speedy tailback, would concur with that. He left the game with a sprained knee, knocking the Buffalo's leading rusher out of the game.

"Rodney is a big part of our offense - in the pass game and the run game," Hansen said. "Losing a guy like that really hurt us."

The young Husky lineup that started the season isn't so scared of making a mistake anymore. They're playing with confidence, commitment.

"We've all grown up," said Jamaal Kearse, a redshirt freshman linebacker. "I'm feeling more comfortable on the field now. I feel like I'm maturing as a linebacker out there. I'm starting to see the game in a different view."

That's just in time. Because now the Huskies' real season begins. Their preseason is over. Stanford is next. Oregon is in two weeks and USC after that. Three big challenges. Three big games.

"Like coach says, we're climbing a mountain," Kearse said. "We're taking it one step at a time."

Washington took one huge step Saturday. For the first time since 2001, Husky fans can think the impossible - Rose Bowl. Now, the Huskies will find out Saturday if they're the real deal, a champion contender.

Gail Wood may be reached at splinters5@reachone.com


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