I spent just about every waking moment of last year examining and debating all the different reasons why Keith Price went from very impressive to painfully mediocre in one year. The loss of his offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, a ragtag offensive line that couldn’t protect him, the lack of pass-catching depth beyond sophomores Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. In the end my best guess was “a little bit of all of them.”
This year I’m still writing about Keith Price and I’m still examining and debating all the reasons behind his performance, but this time I get to pick out why I think he had so much success putting up points on Boise State’s defense. Much, much more enjoyable.
One last thing before we get into this Price praise party: I didn’t predict that he would have this kind of success, and if he does it over a full season, I won’t predict to have called that either. His 2012 was too consistently iffy over a full 13 game schedule that I felt it was a bit much to assume a full return to form. But unless this game was a high point never to be equaled, it appears I was wrong, and I’ll say that with a grin on my face.
The No-Huddle Offense
We heard about it all through camp, the Oregon-like tempo and how comfortable Price was with the change. Turns out Sark wasn’t kidding about running 80+ plays a game, and reporters at practice weren’t kidding about Price’s comfort level. The shift makes all sorts of sense. Most importantly, depth is finally there both on offense and defense for the necessary substitutions. But it also serves to streamline Price’s mental process in that he has no choice but to move on to the next play no matter what sort of mistake he may have made.
Improved Offensive Line Play
Probably the clearest source of Price’s issues last season, a line that was once ravaged by injury and heavy on inexperienced first-time starters is now strong based on a composition of now-seasoned young starters who were thrown into the fire out of necessity a year ago and the veterans who were held out by injuries last season, now healthy. That depth is necessary for the no-huddle attack to function, as even five of the most physically fit offensive linemen cannot be expected to play over 80 snaps per contest.
Not to mention that snapping the ball almost immediately, and from the shotgun, gives the offensive line an advantage in pass protection. They only gave up one sack, and while they look legitimately improved and deserve credit, I don’t think they would have shutdown the BSU pass rush so entirely operating at last year’s tempo.
Outrageous Pass-Catching Depth
The dynamic of the passing game was completely different than it was in the Vegas Bowl loss, or any other time in 2012. Even with ASJ (one half of Price’s two-man stable of reliable targets last year) on the sideline serving a suspension, Washington had no problem finding receivers to target. In fact, in the first half Kasen Williams caught zero balls and Price depended almost entirely on swing passes to Jaydon Mickens and John Ross to allow for open-field play making with occasional downfield passing to the suddenly dangerous senior Kevin Smith thrown in for good measure. But then in the two-score, game-breaking third quarter Price threw TDs to both Kasen Williams and tight end Joshua Perkins, starting in place of ASJ. At that point it was clear that when the Huskies put any combination of Mickens, Ross, Smith, Williams, or Perkins on the field together, every single player needed to be treated as a legitimate threat. Add the best tight end in the country into that mix and Price should feel like a kid in a candy shop when he drops back. Too many choices!
Keith Price Himself
By listing off all these reasons that Price is succeeding that are separate from the quarterback himself, I don’t mean to take away from him. The senior team-leader dealt with a massive amount of criticism last year and accepted every bit of responsibility for every on-field mistake, yet he had a year that ranked highly among Husky QB seasons. And then during the off-season he quieted any talk of a QB competition while accepting that he had lost the benefit of the doubt and would be questioned by fans and the media until he made 2012 a distant memory with on-field success.
After a fairly horrible pick to start off the game, he took a deep breath and began to do just that. And if he continues to play at a similarly high level for the rest of the year, he will have reshaped his legacy. A great 2011, subpar 2012, and then a fantastic senior season involving a Husky breakout would leave the middle year mostly forgotten, lost in the permanent shadow of Price’s record setting career numbers and status as the quarterback that finally carried Washington over the hump. It’s right around 11 games too early to know if that will happen, but Price couldn’t have had a better start.
Suddenly it’s like we’re back to the weeks after the seven-score Alamo Bowl performance, except that the laughing stock of a defense that led to Washington losing that game is now a fairly fearsome unit led by future head coach Justin Wilcox and both the offensive line and the receivers are vastly improved. It’s tough not to get carried away thinking of the possibilities.
In particular, it’s difficult to guess just how dominant ASJ will be once he returns against Illinois. The junior tight end put up great numbers for a tight end (or any pass catcher) last year with 69 catches for 852 yards and 7 scores, but that was in the context of Price’s struggles. Against Boise State Price completed several passes that he never would have managed, or even attempted, last year. With ASJ’s superior size and jaw-dropping catch-radius and hands, Seferian-Jenkins could be nearly impossible to stop without opening up copious opportunities for Williams, Mickens, Ross, or Smith.
It’s enough to make someone forget about Bishop Sankey and the potent run game. Sankey with a rugged 25 carries for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns, backup Dwayne Washington chipping in a solid 52 yards to go along with his first score, and a total of 268 rushing yards. Once again, the one game caveat is necessary. But that doesn’t mean the Illinois coaching staff isn’t watching Saturday’s game tape and thinking “We can’t stop all of that…”