SEATTLE — Keith Price couldn’t remember the last time he felt he played so bad. Steve Sarkisian got into a funk with his play calling as Washington’s offense staggered for the most of three quarters.
Fortunately the Huskies defense was there to pick up the slack.
It’s been a while since that statement could be made.
“It’s good to win a different style of game than we were accustomed to playing around here,” Sarkisian said.
Safety Will Shamburger returned a fumble 44 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, Price threw for 222 yards and a TD to Kasen Williams, and Washington raced to an early lead then held on for a 21-12 win over San Diego State on Saturday night.
The Huskies revamped, new look defense under new coordinator Justin Wilcox more than held their own against the Aztecs and took the first step in erasing the embarrassing memories of last year’s 67 points allowed to Baylor in last December’s Alamo Bowl.
Washington forced three turnovers, sacked Aztecs quarterback Ryan Katz four times and picked up its first defensive touchdown since November 2010 on Shamburger’s scoop-and-score early in the third quarter.
“We’re not going to be the defense of the past,” Washington linebacker Travis Feeney said. “We’re going to step it up this year and make sure our defense is good. We’re going to be on top of things, as we were today.”
Washington allowed 327 total yards, well under the 453 yards per game average allowed a year ago under previous defensive coordinator Nick Holt. And they were opportunistic with cornerback Tre Watson intercepting Katz on the Aztecs’ first possession of the game and giving the Huskies a short field for their first score of the season when Bishop Sankey plowed in from the 2.
It was 14-0 after the Huskies next drive after Price hit all seven of his pass attempts, the last an inside screen to Williams, who made a quick sidestep that left Aztecs’ defensive tackle Sam Meredith grasping at air and sprinted 8 yards for the two touchdown advantage.
Price finished 25 of 35 passes and completed 13 straight at one point of the first half. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins had nine catches for 82 yards. Yet Price was almost crestfallen talking about his poor decisions and occasionally scrambling when he should have stayed in the pocket. Price was sacked three times and took many more hits that are likely to be harder and more frequent next week at No. 3 LSU.
“I obviously didn’t perform the way I expected to. I haven’t played that bad a ball game in a long time,” Price said. “Just got to get back on my horse and I promise I’m going play better next week.”
Washington’s offense managed just 108 yards in the second half and only had one legitimate scoring chance, but Travis Coons missed a 47-yard field goal attempt wide left late in the third quarter.
Shamburger’s touchdown was the first defensive touchdown for Washington since Quinton Richardson returned an interception for a score against UCLA two seasons ago. Jamaal Kearse returned a fumbled kickoff return for a touchdown last year at Utah.
Shamburger found himself in the right spot when John Timu and Talia Crichton teamed up to force the turnover. Colin Lockett caught an 8-yard pass in the flat but as he was pulled down Timu started ripping at the ball and loosened it just enough that when Crichton drilled Lockett, the ball came completely free. Shamburger quickly grabbed the fumble and raced the other way, barely getting inside the pylon for the touchdown.
“We played with great effort. We got some turnovers which were huge in the game. We’ve got plenty to clean up,” Wilcox said. “I really liked the guys’ effort, they were ready to play, just a lot of little things that showed up big.”
Katz threw a 47-yard touchdown to uncovered Tim Vizzi on the first play of the second quarter and Adam Muema added a 1-yard TD run in the fourth quarter but that was it for the Aztecs, who weren’t helped by questionable kicking decisions by coach Rocky Long.
Katz finished 10 of 19 for 128 yards in his first start after transferring from Oregon State. The Aztecs went for the 2-point conversion following Vizzi’s touchdown on the first play of the second quarter and failed. They were forced to go for two again following Muema’s score on fourth down with 12:06 left and trailing 21-12, but Katz’s pass was broken up by Huskies safety Justin Glenn and the Aztecs still trailed by two scores.
“Today we had planned that every time we were over the 50-yard line, if it was on our chart, fourth-and-whatever, it said to go for it, we were going to go for,” Long said.
Sarkisian though was peeved by a coverage lapse on the first play of the second quarter that led to Vizzi’s touchdown, believing that the Aztecs hid the receiver. Vizzi was uncovered near the Aztecs sideline and Sarkisian was late trying to call timeout. Katz made an easy toss and Vizzi went untouched for the touchdown.
“My understanding of the rule is you can’t substitute or you can’t run a play with the intent to deceive and I sure thought there was an intent to deceive,” Sarkisian said.