Sarkisian Still Tinkering With Road Formula

CHICAGO - The numbers are downright gaudy; 615 yards of offense - 273 yards rushing and 342 yards passing - tied for sixth-most in school history. Keith Price was 28-35 through the air, and Washington gashed Illinois for 11 plays of 20 yards or more in their 34-24 win over Illinois Saturday night at Soldier Field.

With the win, the Huskies notched their first non-conference road game in the Steve Sarkisian era. Sark had previously lost at Notre Dame, BYU, Nebraska, and LSU - so while the win was harder than it needed to be given the impressive offensive stat line, UW will gratefully take the W and head back to Seattle 2-0.

"Really proud of our team and getting a big road win for us, a non-conference win, against a good football team," Sarkisian said post-game. "I thought our team showed a lot of grit, fighting through some of the adversity we had tonight and continued to make plays offensively."

Sarkisian seemed to follow the offensive blueprint patterned in UW's season-opening win over Boise State. In that game the Huskies generated 313 yards of total offense in the first half but only had 10 points to show for it. Same rules apparently applied Saturday night in Chicago when Washington bowled their way to 278 total yards on only 38 plays - an average of 7.3 yards per play. But again, Washington couldn't find the points to match their production, scoring only 10. Part of it was turnovers - two fumbles on two carries by Dwayne Washington - as well as nine first-half penalties for 84 yards, as well as aggressive play calling in the red zone that stymied the Huskies as much as anything the Illini put in front of them.

The second half - as it was against the Broncos - was a much different tale. Washington went on a 7-play, 75-yard march completely on the ground that felt like a statement drive. Sixty-one of Bishop Sankey's 208-yards - a career-best - came on that drive. The other 14 came from Jesse Callier, who had six carries for 66 yards in his own right. The Huskies averaged a stout 5.5 yards per rush on the night.

"In the second half we ran the football better," Sarkisian said. "I thought our conditioning showed again. Our guys were in great shape and they played hard. I thought Bishop Sankey was a warrior again tonight. It was great for Jesse Callier to step up. It's good to have 24 back running around."

It would have made sense for Sark to continue to ground Illinois up if it weren't for the fact that the pass was working as well. Keith Price had one of his most efficient games as a Husky, going 28-35 for 342 yards and two touchdowns. The 342 yards was the second-most of his UW career, the most being his phenomenal performance out-dueling Robert Griffin III in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. Six receivers had catches of at least 15 yards or more, led by Jaydon Mickens, who had eight receptions for 51 yards and Kevin Smith, who caught five passes for 104 yards.

Illinois Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit threw the kitchen sink at Washington's defense, running reverses, double reverses, double reverse passes, and a reverse pass back to Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase that would eventually get picked off by cornerback Greg Ducre to seal the game. Illinois first offensive series mimicked Washington's in terms of UW's no-huddle, up-tempo approach; the next series saw Scheelhaase under center and ran three-straight powers up the gut. Cubit gave Justin Wilcox all he could handle. Adding to Washington's difficulties was the loss of one of their defensive captains, junior linebacker John Timu, to an undisclosed shoulder injury for the second half. Thomas Tutugi came in and had four tackles in Timu's absence.

Wilcox, who wanted to see more from his defensive line in terms of a pass rush, got what he wanted when he was able to get four first-half sacks - three from Josh Shirley - and keep Scheelhaase 'in the cage'. The second half was a tougher task, as Scheelhaase was intent on running and being a bigger factor with the ball in his hands. The Huskies gave up their first big play of the season - a 72-yard pitch-and-catch between Scheelhaase and Ryan Lankford - something they'd been able to avoid in their opener versus Boise State.

"It was a momentum swing for us - guys were really fired up after that and started to play like we had a chance to win this game," Lankford said.

At that point a 21-yard UW cushion took a bit of a hit and the Huskies found themselves on their heels after punting the ball away. But Washington's defense held fast, forcing a three-and-out and giving their team just a bit of breathing room.

"I felt like maybe we had a chance to put them away and they fought back," Sarkisian said. "We found a way to get a couple of stops defensively late. I thought our defense was playing really well. It was a good job by our guys closing the ball game out late. All in all it's a great win for us to come on the road, halfway across the country, and get a good non-conference win."

All that said, the Illinois game was almost a little too much like the Boise win in areas where the Huskies had two weeks to improve. Sarkisian mentioned tackling as a priority, and it was better at times, but probably not to the coaches' satisfaction. Special teams rotations and depth was also a point of emphasis, but too many times UW were backed up in their own end and had to manufacture long drives in order to, worst-case, switch the field position battle. Freshman John Ross, the most dynamic returner the Huskies have, got loose a couple of times in the kickoff return game, but those plays were nullified by penalties. And too many times he let punts drop, sacrificing yards and yards of field position.

"We had a lot of long fields tonight," Sarkisian said. "I felt like were were starting backed up quite a bit. Then, we were stubbing ourselves in the foot. We were shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties that we can fix that kept pushing us back. We would get big chunks of yards and then go backward again. It was like two steps forward and one step back. I think we can clean that up."

Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman believes Washington's best football is ahead of them after seeing them up close and personal for 60 minutes. "You can see that Coach Sark has Washington in the direction he would like them to head," Beckman said. "He's done a great job building that program into something that he really wants it to be and you can see how his players played in that brand of offense."

The Huskies finished the job after stumbling a bit in the third and fourth quarters - something that was not always guaranteed in the past and definitely not on the road. "It is something we preached all off-season and through camp, continuing to finish," Sankey said after his record-setting performance. "I think we did a good job, digging deep down the stretch and we finished. We knew we just had to take it upon ourselves and fix the things we needed to fix and just finish."

But will penalties come back to haunt the Huskies in game where they can't necessarily overcome them? Will the length of drives become an issue when playing against better and better defenses, defenses that will make Washington play completely mistake-free football in order to beat them?

Sarkisian will take the win and get on the plane back to Seattle savoring his first-ever non-conference road win. It was a victory five long years in the making. But can the Huskies truly build off of it and fix what needs to be fixed in order to take that next step forward? The formula is constantly being tinkered with, and only those improvements stand in the way of a Washington Football team whose ceiling appears limitless as long as they can stay out of their own way. Top Stories