By Christian Caple The News Tribune
SAN FRANCISCO — There seems to be little consensus on Keith Price’s rightful place on the all-time list of Washington’s greatest quarterbacks.
It seems few players at that position, at this school, have produced with such volume and received as much criticism as Price, who will play his final collegiate game on Friday against Brigham Young in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
The statistics alone should ensure he is remembered fondly. His completion percentage in three seasons as UW’s starter ranks as the best in school history. He’s thrown more touchdown passes than anyone in school history. He’s thrown for more yards than anyone not named Cody Pickett. And he’s UW’s first starting quarterback to compile a winning record (21-16) since Pickett, who started from 2001-03.
Of Price’s 20 touchdown passes and just five interceptions this season, senior receiver Kevin Smith marveled: “He has kind of similar stats to (Alabama quarterback) A.J. McCarron right now, and he was in the Heisman run.”
And yet there are detractors, those who fall victim to their own misguided hubris while banging out half-coherent Twitter correspondence during games, those who dismiss the Huskies’ lacking pass protection and the consistent beating Price absorbed since the beginning of the 2011 season.
More informed criticisms are valid, and go something like this: Price, like Jake Locker and Isaiah Stanback before him, never beat Oregon. He didn’t beat USC. UW’s two wins over top-10 teams with Price at the helm — Oregon State and Stanford in 2012 — both came during his less-than-stellar junior season, and were both punctuated more by strong defensive efforts than by Price’s heroics.
The best game Price played in his life — 438 yards passing, four touchdowns passing, three touchdowns rushing against Baylor in the 2011 Alamo Bowl — the Huskies lost 67-56. Price deserved precisely zero blame for that defeat, but to some, it is viewed as a microcosm of his career, that of a good college quarterback whose resume lacks a true, signature victory to further endear himself to a sometimes fickle fanbase.
Of the ups and downs, Price says: “I wouldn’t change anything.”
‘Part of being a warrior’
All quarterbacks play through varying degrees of pain. Not all quarterbacks play injured their entire careers.
Price came close. He suffered a knee sprain in his first game as the team’s full-time starter, a 30-27 victory over Eastern Washington to begin the 2011 season, then hobbled through the rest of that year with sprains in both knees, accompanied by ankle issues.
Yet he missed only one start, and finished that sophomore season with a handful of UW records, including most passing touchdowns in a single season (33), best completion percentage in a single season (66.9 percent) and highest passer efficiency rating in a single season (161.9).
He played hurt last season, too, though never badly enough that he missed a game. But it’s worth wondering if his health attributed to a pretty glaring statistical dropoff — the departure of receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar didn’t help, either — punctuated by end-of-season losses at Washington State and Boise State that marred what could have been an eight or nine-win season.
Price admitted during the 2012 season that he should have trusted his teammates more, shouldn’t have tried to do so much on his own.
His numbers weren’t awful — 2,726 yards, 60.9 completion percentage, 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions — but fans expected more after Price’s brilliant sophomore season.
“He played basically all of last year either injured or hurt, and not a lot of people knew it,” said interim coach Marques Tuiasosopo, who coached quarterbacks this season and played quarterback at UW from 1997-2000. “And they gave him a lot of flak, from a perception standpoint, for not playing as well. And maybe he didn’t, but it’s understandable that when you’re not 100 percent, you may not do some of the same things you did before, and you still might be better than what the options are to play. So you play. You gut it out.”
That became Price’s M.O, for better or worse. He entered this season relatively healthy, then played a few games through a swollen thumb before injuring his shoulder badly enough in a game against UCLA that he missed the next week’s game at Oregon State.
Via aggressive rehabilitation, Price returned the next week to start in the Apple Cup, and ultimately led UW to its eighth win of the season, though some fans booed during the first half when the offense sputtered.
Price responded with a touchdown passing and a touchdown rushing in the second half.
“It’s part of being a warrior,” Tuiasosopo said.
Price’s exploits while hobbled earned the respect of his teammates, and of former coach Steve Sarkisian, who constantly reinforced publicly the idea of Price as a tough customer.
That’s something former quarterbacks can appreciate.
“I think you respect a guy when he’s banged up in some areas,” said Hugh Millen, a radio analyst for KJR 950 AM who played quarterback at UW in the mid-1980s. “You know he’s not physically at his best. I think you also know that can be a challenge mentally to put that aside, because it really tugs at your focus when you’re hurting. You’ve got to read the defense, you’ve got to make decisions, perform and throw the ball accurately. It’s not just your body. What happens in your mind, it pulls from your focus. I admire anybody who’s playing well when he’s hurt. You have to be tough at that position.”
One last chance
Statistically, Price has been more productive than nearly anybody in school history. But other quarterbacks have produced memories that register higher on the nostalgia meter.
Locker’s numbers aren’t as impressive, but he’ll forever be remembered as the quarterback who helped engineer the program’s turnaround from its 0-12 record in 2008. Tuiasosopo, Warren Moon, Billy Joe Hobert and Mark Brunell each won a Rose Bowl. Millen quarterbacked an Orange Bowl champion. Damon and Brock Huard played on teams that legitimately competed for Pac-10 championships. Pickett is the school’s all-time leading passer, and led the Huskies to victories over top-10 Washington State teams in back-to-back seasons.
It’s difficult to pinpoint where Price belongs in that pantheon.
“He’s right up there,” Tuiasosopo said. “I don’t know how you can rank them. I’ll let you guys do that. But definitely I think he’s garnered the respect of all the quarterbacks that have played before him. He’s done a great job, he’s got one more game left and I know he’s fired up to finish it on the right note.”
Millen thinks fans might remember Price’s spirit — and signature smile, which received attention on nearly every one of UW’s television broadcasts — more than anything else.
“People respect his competitiveness and the spirit with which he played,” Millen said. “That’s what I’ll always remember. Hopefully he can end his career with a bowl win, and I think that’ll help his legacy.”
It should. Price is 0-2 in bowl games, but if he leads the Huskies to a victory on Friday — coaching change and all — he’ll be the first quarterback to start on a nine-win team at UW since Tuiasosopo led the 2000 squad to a Rose Bowl championship.
And that’s how he’d like to be remembered.
“Just as a competitor,” Price said last week. “One of the best to have ever come through here. And in order to do that, you’ve got to win. We have to win this next week. That’s how I want to be remembered.”