After being dissed by an Oregonian newspaper columnist as soft, the Washington Huskies Saturday night went all Joe Frazier on the seventh-ranked Oregon State Beavers.
As much as the dramatic pass receptions by Kasen Williams near the end will be celebrated as the difference in the 20-17 triumph over previously undefeated Beavers, and the snarky shot by John Canzano will be cited as the motivator, the purple jaw was set in the first quarter when coach Steve Sarkisian called running play after running play straight into the strength of the OSU defense.
"We had to instill our will," Sarkisian said. "I had to do it."
Washington had to prove it wasn't the sissy outfit that was rolled the previous Saturday 52-17 by Arizona in Tucson. Even though the Wildcats' win over USC earlier Saturday cast a little different light on the dreary episode in the desert, the Huskies' ill-prepared start a week ago made them look more helpless than they believed they were.
Washington does not have the offense this season to play well from behind, nor would the meager passing game work in the rain. So they ran 20 times in the first half for 84 yards, more than the Beavers were surrendering per game. Bishop Sankey went 15 times for 71 of those yards, quarterback Keith Price played it mostly safe with his passes and Washington found itself ahead 10-0 at the half.
That's right -- ahead. Instead of making early turnovers and mistakes out of apprehension, the Huskies dumbed down the playbook and looked smart.
"I was surprised," said OSU's top defensive end, Scott Crichton, "that they were able to run."
"Weird," said Price. "We played so bad last week, and now we beat another top 10 team."
Following a 17-13 win over then-No. 8 Stanford Sept. 27, the Huskies dropped three in a row to Oregon, USC and Arizona, falling behind early and losing by a combined score of 128-52. Soft? Hell, yes.
Apparently the public humiliation added to the frenzy. The game set up as a pivot point in Sarkisian's four-year tenure. The losses stirred grumblings about the coaching among Huskies fans, which was typically misplaced, given the injuries this season as well as the caliber of opponents.
But Sarkisian had placed himself in the crosshairs by saying this was a year to take the next step, which meant more than 6-6 and mere bowl eligibility. To halt the teetering, he put the team through an intense practice grind during the week "to see who was going to be accountable," and installed a game plan the offense could run safely.
Then midweek, the print criticism from Portland about Washington being "the least resilient team in the Pac-12" created an emotional tipping point.
Definitely," Price said about being called out in print. "I mean, I wasn't out there hitting anybody, but we were all disrespected."
Said tight end Austin Seferian Jenkins to KJR radio: "He's not a very good writer, because he doesn't know what he's talking about. He should rewrite his story. (The Beavers) weren't as physical as we were."
That was evident in the defense, particularly the secondary, which may have had the unit's best game of the Sarkisian tenure. Picking senior quarterback Sean Mannion four times, the Huskies in the first half held Oregon State to 110 yards and five first downs. Included in the mayhem was a YouTube-worthy hit by safety Sean Parker in the second quarter on Markus Wheaton after a completion, which not only knocked the Beavers' premier receiver from the game with concussion-like symptoms, the ball was popped free and into the hands of UW's Justin Glenn for an interception.
"I don't know how many red-zone opportunities. or close to red-zone opportunities we gave up, but it was way too many," said OSU coach Mike Riley. "I think that's what we regret most."
The defense was credited with nine pass breakups. Entering the game, they had 14 all season. The aggression nearly got out of hand with three after-the-whistle personal fouls on Washington, part of eight accepted penalties that cost 84 yards.
But the intensity also took a toll on Mannion, returning for his first start in three weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. After his fourth pick, by Marcus Peters with nine minutes left in the game, which set up Washington for a two-play scoring drive that put the Huskies up 17-10, Mannion was replaced by Cody Vaz.
The backup took the Beavers down the field in seven plays for the tying touchdown, leaving 4:58 for the sputtering UW offense to take charge.
Price, who completed 18 of 30 passes for 194 yards and only one turnover -- he had 10 in the previous three games combined -- hit Seferian-Jenkins for 20 yards on the first play, and three plays later found Williams along the sidelines for a spectacular 19-yard reception over a defender at the OSU 33. After a dubious 15-yard penalty was assessed against the Beavers for a hit to Williams' helmet, the Huskies five plays later scored the game-winner on Travis Coons' 30-yard field goal with 1:20 left.
The Beavers' final drive was stifled, and Washington had knocked off its second top 10 in the same season for only the fifth time (1982, 1984, 1991, 2001). The Huskies had not defeated an unbeaten team past the midpoint of a season since 1982.
"Our kids," Sarkisian said, "showed a great deal of resiliency."
The choice of words was not accidental, nor was anything else in Washington's approach to game against an opponent that had beaten them in seven of the previous eight meetings. The evening looked a lot like a next step.