Friday's 27-17 Apple Cup win was one Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian needed. For the first time in his five seasons leading the Huskies, Sarkisian has eight wins with an opportunity to score a ninth in the bowl game.
Sarkisian said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call "finish" was the team's motto for November. Turning the mantra into reality against rival Washington State was of particular importance. With three straight 7-6 records, the 2013 season was always about raising Washington's expectations with on-field results.
As difficult of a three-game stretch as any team in the nation faced detoured the Huskies' path to win No. 8. Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State entered the final week of the regular season a combined 27-6, and two are playing in next week's Pac-12 Championship.
To reach that same level, Washington obviously needs to beat the conference's top competition. But winning all the games it should is an important step for Washington to return to the Pac-12 elite. The Huskies had a recurring issue with doing that, losing such late-season head-scratching games as a 17-point decision to a 3-9 Oregon State team in 2011, and blowing a three-score lead down the stretch to drop the 2012 Apple Cup.
This year's Apple Cup wasn't without its moments when Washington looked prime for another fall. The Huskies could muster just three first-half points, and while the defense kept it tied for much of the initial 30 minutes, Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday's 14-yard connection with wide receiver Rickey Galvin gave Washington State a halftime lead.
Another Halliday-led touchdown drive, culminating in his five-yard scoring strike to Dom Williams, cut a 10-point Washington lead to just 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter. Last year's 18-point Cougars rally loomed large for the final minutes, but the Huskies responded to the challenge.
Sarkisian afforded senior quarterback Keith Price the opportunity to finish his Washington career on a high note despite a shoulder injury, and Price responded by completing 75 percent of his pass attempts and hooking up with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins for a touchdown. Price also provided the exclamation mark with a two-yard touchdown rush.
Price's departure at season's end leaves a tremendous void. The three-year starter is more synonymous with the Sarkisian era than any player. Sarkisian might also be faced with replacing running back Bishop Sankey. Seattle Times reporter Adam Jude tweeted Sankey is mulling over his NFL future.
Bishop Sankey was asked if this was his final game at Husky Stadium: "I can't tell you that right now." Needs to talk it over with family.— Adam Jude (@A_Jude) November 30, 2013
If Friday was Sankey's last time playing at Husky Stadium, he leaves in fitting fashion. The Doak Walker Award finalist rolled off 200 yards to finish the regular season with 1,775, in the process surpassing Washington great Corey Dillon in the program's record book. Should he return for his senior season, he'll be the cornerstone of an offense with championship potential.
Price's likely successor, redshirt freshman Cyler Miles, will have a deep and talented wide receiver corps working with him next season between Jaydon Mickens, John Ross and injured Kasen Williams. Freshman Damore'ea Stringfellow, a non-factor in the first half of the season, continued his progression into a primary weapon with four receptions Friday.
There's no greater measure of Washington's progression than the turnaround its defense made since it ranked No. 108 among the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed in 2011. The Huskies held Washington State two touchdowns below its season average with a swarming presence that made Halliday's passing pocket very small.
He was sacked five times by linebackers Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney, and defensive ends Evan Hudson and Hau'oli Kikaha. All have eligibility remaining and should be back next season to anchor coordinator Justin Wilcox's defense.
A boisterous fan base hungry for its team to return to the Pac-12's elite saw Washington take an important step Friday—and those fans also played a role. The 71,000-plus packed into Husky Stadium disrupted Halliday's snap count and contributed to penalty flags that pushed the Cougars behind the chains.
When Washington was at the pinnacle of college football, there was no venue more feared than Husky Stadium. It could be that way again, and setting a new benchmark under Sarkisian is a crucial step.