Huskies Follow Familiar Theme
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Huskies Follow Familiar Theme

LAS VEGAS - You could almost script out how the 21st MAACO Bowl Las Vegas was going to play out. Both Washington and Boise State would hang neck-and-neck, trade body blows for four quarters and one or two key plays would spell the difference. And the 28-26 final score certainly followed the pattern laid out by both teams all year long.

Even though Boise State won 10 games, they hadn't necessarily won those games with their patented high-flying offense. And similarly, despite Washington's 5300-plus yards in 2011 didn't show themselves at all in 2012 as Keith Price regressed behind a young, struggling offensive line.

So that's how it evolved, like a play in three acts; the first act was Boise State landing the initial shots, trying to take Washington out early. The second act was the Huskies' turn to push their way back into it and take the lead. The final act was the final twist to the game, the plays that determined the eventual outcome.

"Extremely frustrating," UW Head Coach Steve Sarkisian said post-game, dusting off the same quotes he had memorized from the Apple Cup. "Frustrating loss because we knew coming in that this would be a good football team. We knew that it would come down to the last possession or two of the game. To their credit, they found a way to win the ball game in the end."

The Huskies did nearly the same things that helped them beat two top-8 team for the first time in over 20 years; stellar defensive play and hitting a couple of big offensive plays to give them the final edge. And instead of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams bailing out the offense time and time again, it was Bishop Sankey taking the reins and nearly single-handedly putting Washington on his back. His career high 205 yards on 30 carries was a masterclass in running the ball as he won game MVP honors - the first time that's happened to a losing team in the Vegas Bowl. Sankey ran with verve, cut and sprinted to daylight like a running back filled with confidence and belief in his play.

"It is definitely disappointing that we didn't get the win, but I am proud that we came out and played hard throughout the game," Sankey said. "We finally got things going in the second quarter. I am just disappointed that we came up short tonight."

The exact opposite could be said of Price, a quarterback who has admittedly taken a few steps back from his wonderful sophomore campaign. His mannerisms and actions painted the portrait of a player unsure of himself and those around him. No one can question Price's heart or ability to battle, and despite a 20-39 performance Saturday he nearly had his team in a position to win another close game. But countless times when a zone read was called, Steve Sarkisian may have called it a 'zone give', because Price clearly lacked the belief and trust in himself to gain yards with plenty of green between him and the Bronco tacklers.

On Washington's final drive they had been dinking and dunking the ball to Sankey and Seferian-Jenkins, trying to get the ball to the 30-yard line for a final 47-yard field goal try by Travis Coons with the wind helping. Just three minutes earlier he had buried a 38-yarder to give the Huskies a 26-25 lead.

But Keith got a little greedy. Instead of dumping another pass down to Seferian-Jenkins to get the Huskies inside Boise State's 45, Price looked down the field and thought he spied Cody Bruns open down the middle of the field. But Jeremy Ioane calmly read Price's eyes and sat right in front of Bruns for the easy interception.

Season over.

The truth is, Keith Price didn't lose the game. Just like Travis Coons didn't lose the game when his 41-yard field goal with 12 minutes remaining missed wide right. When you play the way Washington did all year long, the margin for error is was as thin as a Vegas bed sheet. So it's hard not to fault the entire team for cracking when the moment showed itself.

Youth produces inconsistency. That's why players like Sankey and Seferian-Jenkins and Williams were able to bail the Huskies out in the Stanford and Oregon State games, yet fail so miserably versus Washington State and Boise State. The starting offensive line for the Broncos consisted of three seniors and two juniors; all fourth and fifth year players. For Washington? One fifth-year senior, three sophomores and one redshirt freshman.

It's hard to understand why Washington is so young in Sarkisian's fourth year, but expect more attrition in the off-season as he tries to flip the roster in search of playmakers. Word of James Sample's imminent transfer is just the first in what could be a bevy of moves made in the next few months.

But something else is going to have to change. Whether it's along the offensive line, at quarterback, at receiver - ultimately Washington has to figure out a way to grow up. It was fun to see a Husky team play a game where the referees actually let them play, but too often it was the Huskies that shot themselves in the foot with poor execution in all three phases of the game.

Everyone is pointing to 2013 as the season. It'll be year five of the Steve Sarkisian era, and things are supposed to finally be back to where they were when Rick Neuheisel was wandering around Montlake in search of a guitar and a reporter to talk to. But after finishing out 2010 with a strong win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, it sure seems like Sark is stuck in neutral. Changes were made defensively after a dismal 2011 season, and those changes proved remarkable. But they weren't enough to compensate for an offense that had gone backward.

So was it two steps forward, two steps back for the Washington Huskies? 2012 sure felt that way.

"I don't know any other way but to keep working hard," Sarkisian said after throwing out a laundry list of things the Huskies have to improve in as they head into the off-season. "We have a good group of men on this team and a good young football team as we mature and grow together, I believe we are going to win these close ones late in the ball game and we will be that 9, 10, 11 win team here sooner rather than later."