The face of the University of Washington football team, which was caricatured on student T-shirts during what appeared to be an historic season, had been missing in recent weeks. A three-game losing streak and ailing knees had left eternally-happy UW quarterback Keith Price spending much of the month of November scowling and hiding the trademark smile that had made him big man on campus this season.
On Saturday night, the teeth were back.
After leading the Huskies to a streak-breaking Apple Cup win over rival Washington State University, Price couldn't stop grinning. It was a familiar sight that had been too long missing.
“It's definitely been tough — not only on me, but on the team,” Price said after throwing three touchdown passes to break the school record of 28 in a season in UW's 38-21 win over WSU on Saturday night. “It's been rough. We lost four out of five games, and it's been rough just having to get up every day and go back to work. But it paid off for us today.”
Like he'd done for most of the first two months of the 2011 season, Price ran the UW offense with the kind of efficiency that even a storied stable of quarterbacks has rarely seen. He fought through a sore knee, shook off a cramp to the thumb on his throwing hand, while completing 21 of 29 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns.
Price was grinning after hitting freshman Kasen Williams on a 16-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter, he was grinning after another Williams touchdown reception snapped a 14-14 tie, he was grinning after hitting Chris Polk on a 22-yard swing pass to maintain the two-touchdown lead midway through the second half, and he was grinning as the Apple Cup presentation was taking place in the south end zone at the Seattle Seahawks' downtown stadium.
More than anything, he was grinning because the long month of UW frustration was over.
“As much as we've been struggling this last month, I think he has to — it all goes hand in hand,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said late Saturday night. “And for him to come back and have one of his best games of the season speaks volumes.”
On a night when UW got valuable defensive contributions from the maligned (linebacker Princeton Fuimaono), the forgotten (defensive end Josh Shirley) and the unknown (backup linebacker Thomas Tutogi), the Huskies went back to a familiar formula of offensive stars in extending their Apple Cup winning streak to three years in a row.
Price threw two touchdown passes to Williams, a third to Polk, and then Polk put a final nail in the WSU coffin with a 1-yard rushing touchdown to cap off another 100-yard performance.
After taking a quick 7-0 lead on Tutogi's blocked punt that resulted in a Jesse Callier recovery and touchdown, the Huskies never trailed. Even when WSU (4-8 overall, 2-7 in the Pacific-12 Conference) rallied to tie the score at 14 with 2:05 remaining in the first half, Price led UW on a seven-play, 61-yard scoring drive that took just 95 seconds to pull ahead for good.
The Huskies (7-5, 5-4) scored the only 10 points of the fourth quarter to finish off a scrappy WSU team.
The win was especially sweet for a group of UW seniors like defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu, who said he took the Cougars for granted leading up to the 2008 Apple Cup his freshman year but has beaten WSU three times since then.
“I never want to go through that again,” Ta'amu said. “Being at UW, you always feel like you have to beat Wazzu. Going into that game my freshman year, I really thought in my head: ‘Oh, we got Wazzu.' They got after us. … A rivalry game is like a Super Bowl game, I guess.”
Part of the reward with this year's win was the end of a three-game losing streak and a 1-4 record that stretched back to mid-October.
“People started to doubt us and not believe in us. This was a real gut-check time for us,” said Polk, who hit the 100-yard mark for the ninth time this season but still stands 204 yards from Napoleon Kaufman's career rushing mark of 4,106. “I'm not really into individual accolades. I'm just happy with the win. I'm glad the Apple Cup stays in Seattle.”
The game took on somewhat historic proportions in that it was the first Apple Cup played at the Seattle Seahawks' downtown stadium. With Husky Stadium under construction, the venue will be UW's home for the 2012 season as well.
Sarkisian said the downtown debut of the Apple Cup was a successful one for UW.
“We could play at Memorial Stadium (in Seattle Center) and it would be rocking,” he said. “But the atmosphere here felt right. It felt like home.”
The Huskies have to wait a week to find out where they'll play next, having already wrapped up bowl eligibility before the Apple Cup. The win means UW will be in contention for the Pac-12's top non-BCS bid, meaning the Alamo Bowl and a return trip to the Holiday Bowl appear to be most likely destinations.
Sarkisian didn't have much preference as of Saturday night.
“Now, it's out of our hands, quite honestly,” he said with a shrug.
What Sarkisian does know is that he'll have his Teeth back when the Huskies take the field for a bowl game late next month. He said Price will be healthier, although nowhere near 100 percent healthy, for whatever postseason game awaits UW.
“In some aspects, he's getting healthier,” Sarkisian said. “He just has a nagging knee that won't go away. We've seen it: he can't run. We've got to do everything we can to protect him. When you see him play, you appreciate him more. He is a tough son of a gun, and he's a tremendous competitor.”
Having that type of competitor back on Saturday night, and seeing him smile again, was almost as sweet as raising the Apple Cup trophy.
“He's an absolute stud,” Sarkisian said of Price. “He's an amazing competitor. He wasn't healthy, and you guys could probably see that he wasn't healthy. We did our best to try to protect him and keep him in the pocket.
“An amazing season for a young man. So many expectations of who was going to replace Jake (Locker) and all that pressure to come into it.”
With his trademark smile, Price said setting the school record of 29 touchdown passes in a season was something he can cherish.
“Oh, man, it's an honor,” he said. “There have been great quarterbacks that have gone through here. So it's an honor.”
With Saturday’s 38-21 victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup, Washington appears headed for one of the top non-BCS bowl bids given to Pacific-12 Conference teams. Here is a look at the most likely destinations for the Huskies next month. (ESPN opponent prediction).
ALAMO BOWLDec. 29 at San Antonio, Texasvs. Big 12 team (Oklahoma or Baylor)
HOLIDAY BOWLDec. 28 at San Diegovs. Big 12 team (Missouri or Texas)
SUN BOWLDec. 31 at El Paso, Texasvs. ACC team (Virginia)
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