Much-improved Huskies off to good start

SEATTLE — Such a promising start to the start of a season.

A passing offense that hummed. A playmaking defense that didn’t bend, and didn’t break.

This was football the way Steve Sarkisian envisioned it when he arrived at the University of Washington three-and-a-half years ago. A team made up almost exclusively of Sarkisian recruits was finally playing Sarkisian football.

With an experienced quarterback throwing to a pair of punishing receivers in wideout Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and a defense doing all the things that makes a coach sleep well at night, Sarkisian was seeing his dreams come true Saturday night.

Of course, it took little more than a quarter for him to wake up.

For the second time in as many season-openers, the Huskies left their fan base with nubs for fingernails on Saturday night. Much like Eastern Washington this time last year, underdog San Diego State was right there hanging around late in the fourth quarter before UW walked away with a too-close-for-comfort 21-12 win.

But don’t compare this escape to last season’s near-miss. While the narrow win over EWU set some groundwork that would become fixtures of the 2011 Huskies — most notably, a surprisingly ready new starting quarterback and a defense that couldn’t stop a safety pin in dry concrete — Saturday night’s opener answered some questions in its own right.

An, no, Husky Nation. It’s not time to hit the panic button.

As first impressions go, UW is ready to give its best shot to a heavyweight contender. And that opportunity will come Saturday in Baton Rouge, La.

Are the Huskies going to overcome their double-digit underdog status and shock the college football world with a win over LSU in six days? Hardly.

But at least UW is ready to compete. As the fourth year of the Sarkisian era opened Saturday night, the Huskies proved at least that.

They may not have looked like your father’s Huskies — that being the dominant team that relied on defense and star power in the backfield — but at least this year’s UW team doesn’t bring back memories of your older brother’s Huskies. For stretches Saturday night, they looked nothing like the teams that Sarkisian has coached for his first three years in purple.

Gone is the go-to running game of workhorse Chris Polk. But UW has found new strength in a short passing game that features equally punishing stars in wide receiver Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Sarkisian put the load on them early in Saturday’s win over SDSU, and both players answered the bell by continually turning two-yard receptions into 12-yard gains.

Also gone is the sagging, paper-machete defense that allowed 30 or more points to eight opponents last season while holding Utah to a season-low 14. New coordinator Justin Wilcox’s more aggressive defense gave plenty of reason for optimism, turning in more highlights in a single evening than Nick Holt’s unit did during the entire 2011 campaign.

Tre Watson’s interception on the opening drive, Will Shamburger’s 44-yard fumble-recovery-return touchdown and the surprisingly consistent pass rush told only part of the story. The improved tackling, particularly by defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker on SDSU screen passes, gave even greater reason for optimism.

UW’s defense was hitting on all cylinders early on, helping build up a 14-0 lead while Price and Co. were nearly unstoppable moving the ball. The Huskies ditched any pretense of balance early, preferring the passing game to a 3-to-1 ratio while driving to scores on their opening two possessions.

The Aztecs had to turn to a little trickery (an unseen receiver lined up near the SDSU goal line, as well as a quick-kick out of shotgun formation) and penalty flags (one wiping out a 38-yard reception to the SDSU 1, and another taking away an 18-yard scramble) just to slow the Huskies down.

Due to a variety of reasons, UW’s offense went quiet after the quick start. The only points of the final three quarters came on a defensive touchdown, and the Huskies finished with just 106 rushing yards. Price called his own performance “the worst game I’ve played in a long time,” while Sarkisian admitted that his own play-calling “got a little stale.”

And yet UW’s defense was there to save the day. Wilcox’s unit featured a more aggressive attack that utilized the unit’s improved speed.

The D gave occasional glimpses of greatness, even though it still has a long way to go to achieve it. The unit’s one mistake of the first three quarters came when Aztecs receiver Tim Vizzi snuck onto the far sideline unchecked — the only UW person who seemed to notice was Sarkisian, who tried valiantly, and unsuccessfully, to call a timeout — to catch a 47-yard touchdown pass without a purple jersey in sight.

Of course, the reality check begins later this week, when UW flies into the hornet’s nest of Baton Rouge, La. National title contender LSU awaits the Huskies, and a double-digit pointspread is all but guaranteed. The juggernaut that was UW on Saturday night may look very different come next weekend.

What’s apparent is that these Huskies — Sarkisian’s Huskies, at last — should be ready to compete. It may well be the biggest test of the Sarkisian era to date, and it’s still unclear how exactly UW will be able to hold off LSU’s pass-rushing ends, but these Huskies should be ready to give the Tigers their best shot.

Will that be enough?

Probably not. But at least Sarkisian’s gang is finally up to the challenge.

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