Keith Price's first start as Washington's starting quarterback was less than memorable, but he has quickly come into his own. Jake Locker was a polarizing star in Seattle for years, but Price may surpass his accomplishments sooner than later.
The old "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" line is bunk. At least, that is what I always tell myself. I am not the world's most proficient maker of first impressions; my general lack of smalltalk ability and occasional awkwardness mean my first impressions are rather limited in scope, quality and memorability. My tenth impression, on the other hand? That's where I try to thrive.
Washington's Keith Price, then, is my kind of quarterback. Like tomorrow's opponent Andrew Luck, or Missouri's James Franklin, Price's first game as the Huskies' starter did not give an accurate impression of what was to come. In Washington's narrow win over Eastern Washington, Price completed a respectable 68 percent of his passes (17-for-25), but for only 102 yards. Throw in three sacks for 33 yards, and that's a downright awful average of 2.5 yards per pass attempt. It was easy at that moment to project 2011 as a rebuilding year in Seattle.
Since then, here is Price's stat line: 101-for-145 (70 percent completion rate), 1,364 yards, 18 touchdowns, four interceptions and nine sacks for 40 yards. That's good for a healthy per-attempt average of 8.6 yards. As competition has improved, so has Price. The Huskies are 5-1 overall, with only a loss at Nebraska spoiling the perfect record. Despite a defense that ranks just 91st in Def. F/+, Washington has continued the perceived momentum it built by winning their last four games of 2010. They are currently 22nd in the AP poll, their highest rank since early-October 2003. Polarizing former star quarterback Jake Locker was saddled by an iffy supporting cast and bouts of inaccuracy and inconsistency; if Price's recent performances are any indication, his accomplishments may surpass those of Locker a lot sooner than people thought.
Washington's is easily the best offense Stanford has faced this year. Stanford's, meanwhile, is the best defense Washington has faced (they rank seventh in Def. F/+, well ahead of No. 26 Utah and No. 43 Nebraska). This is a strong test for both sides. What should we expect?
Washington generally strives for balance on standard downs. They run 62 percent of the time on such downs, right around the national average of 60 percent. Running back Chris Polk has been steady and productive, rushing for between 107 and 130 yards in four of six games (the other two: 60 versus California, 189 versus Utah), albeit mostly against iffy defenses. Washington ranks 41st in Standard Downs Rushing S&P+, and Polk may find fewer holes against a Stanford defense that ranks 11th in the same category.
In general, opponents fear Stanford's front seven. They run just 48 percent of the time on standard downs, which makes sense considering what I mentioned in this morning's mailbag: the Cardinal rank 10th in Adj. Line Yards and first in Adj. Sack Rate and may possess the best defensive line in college football. The best way to keep a strong line off-balance is by mixing in quite a bit of quick passing, and that appears to be what opponents have tried.
Price even splits his passes on standard downs. Jermaine Kearse has seen 20 targets (12 catches, 164 yards, 8.2 per target), while emerging star James Johnson has seen 16 (15 catches, 209 yards, 13.1 per target), freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins 15 (10 catches, 192 yards, 12.8 per target) and Devin Aguilar 15 (10 catches, 141 yards, 9.4 per target). Stanford's secondary is rather deep, but they will have to account for quite a few different weapons, especially if running backs Polk and Jesse Callier (seven standard downs targets, five catches, 39 yards) get involved.
As is often the case when a young quarterback is at the helm, Washington's offense does not grade out quite as well on passing downs. Once again, they run and pass at an average rate -- 31.6 percent (national average: 33 percent) -- but their Passing Downs S&P+ rank is a lesser (but still tolerable) 28th. Efficiency has been the goal (they rank 19th in Passing Downs Success Rate+), but they certainly cede the advantage to Stanford (14th in Passing Downs S&P+) on these downs. Stanford rushes the quarterback incredibly well (which has left them vulnerable to some decent gains on the ground), and I would expect the Huskies to keep it short and simple on second- and third-and-long.
Strangely, Price's focus changes considerably on passing downs. Aguilar is the No. 4 target on standard downs, but he is No. 1 on passing downs with 17 targets (11 catches, 189 yards, 11.1 per target). Kearse (14 targets, 11 catches, 120 yards, 8.6 per target) and Johnson (11 targets, seven catches, 78 yards, 7.1 per target) follow, while Seferian-Jenkins (six targets, five catches, 52 yards, 8.7 per target) drops off of the radar a bit. It would make sense that Price would lean toward Aguilar and Kearse, stalwarts in Washington's passing game for years, but it would behoove him to keep things diverse and unpredictable in the face of an attacking defense.
By all means, Andrew Luck and the Stanford offense should torch a struggling Huskies unit, meaning Price and company will have to overachieve just to keep things close. Still, the game within the game will tell us a lot about both Stanford's and Washington's ceilings for the rest of the season. If Stanford struggles with Washington, they could face an uphill battle against Oregon, Notre Dame, and perhaps Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game (if they make it). Meanwhile, Washington still has to face a strong Oregon defense (at home) and a quickly improving Oregon State unit (on the road). The F/+ projections (Stanford by 19.4, slightly below the 20.5-point spread) are not particularly friendly to the Huskies, but Washington can prove quite a bit, even in a competitive loss. Head coach Steve Sarkisian has made Washington interesting again, and he'll have two more years with Keith Price after this one.
Price's first impression may have been unmemorable, but by the time he gets to Impression No. 10, the country may start to take notice.