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What we learned from Washington’s win over Illinois

By Brent Stecker

The No. 19-ranked Washington Huskies will likely be moving up in the AP poll again this week. That’s what a 34-24 victory over a talented team like Illinois will do for you.

That’s not to say it was the cleanest win for the now 2-0 Huskies. While the running game moved the ball seemingly at will and senior quarterback Keith Price was especially efficient (28 for 35 for 342 yards, two scores and zero interceptions), a whopping 12 penalties kept the Huskies from putting the game out of reach.

But then again, there is a lot to like about Washington after two showings in its new up-tempo offense.

Three things we learned:

sankey celebrate
Washington running back Bishop Sankey has topped 150 yards rushing in both of the Huskies’ wins this season, including a career-high 208 against Illinois Saturday. (AP)

1. The Huskies are a second-half team.

The common thread between UW’s two wins this season is its second-half play. Against Boise State in Week 1, the Huskies turned a 10-3 halftime lead into a 38-6 runaway victory. Against Illinois, the Huskies again led 10-3 at halftime, and again turned up the intensity after the break.

Washington’s first drive of the second half quickly proved that the delayed charge against Boise State was no fluke. The Huskies kept the ball on the ground for the entirety of their seven-play, 75-play scoring drive, one that squarely put the Illini on their heels to start the half. And of course a big part of that was because …

2. Bishop Sankey is a big deal.

The junior tailback has been nothing short of a superstar through the first two games of the season. He followed up a 161-yard, two-score performance against Boise State with a career-high 208 yards and a touchdown on the ground, plus three receptions for 63 yards and another score Saturday.

Illinois simply didn’t have an answer for the powerful Spokane native, and you better believe that upcoming opponents will be spending a ton of time trying to figure out how to slow him down. But even if they do, it may not do much good after the emergence of another veteran Huskies running back Saturday.

3. Jesse Callier is no third-string player.

Nobody expected much from junior running back Callier after he took just one handoff for no yards against Boise State and was listed third on the Huskies’ depth chart entering this week. That might not be the case anymore.

Pressed into duty after second-string tailback Dwayne Washington lost two fumbles in the first half, Callier made the most of his opportunity, rushing for 66 yards and a touchdown on just six carries. That wasn’t all he did, however – he also caught two passes for 30 yards, including a huge 25-yard screen pass on a third-and-8 midway through the fourth quarter. At that point the score was 31-24, but Callier’s catch and run kept the drive going and eventually led to a 32-yard field goal from Travis Coons, giving Washington an important two-score lead with 4:48 to go.

Three things we’re still trying to figure out:

1. Is the pass rush Jekyll or Hyde?

Considering they didn’t record a single sack against Boise State in Week 1, getting more pressure on the quarterback was a definite point of emphasis for the Huskies against Illinois. And in that regard, mission accomplished. Washington sacked shifty Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase six times, and junior defensive end Josh Shirley had a monstrous game with four sacks on his own.

As impressive as that is, was it a sign of things to come, or simply the result of facing a shaky Illini offensive line that also allowed Scheelhaase to go down to five sacks against Southern Illinois in Week 1?

2. Will poor play in the first half come back to bite UW?

The Huskies have been lucky to have leads at halftime in their two games so far – especially against the Illini. Twice in the first half Saturday they ended promising drives by losing a fumble, and penalties kept creeping up at inopportune times to prevent them from building a comfortable advantage.

No doubt, Illinois and Boise State are tough competition, and it’s still early in the season. But when midseason rolls along and Washington finds itself matched up against Oregon and Stanford in back-to-back weeks, it’s very doubtful it can afford to have the same slow starts.

3. What is the ceiling of Washington’s offense if its keep its penalties in check?

The biggest issue for the Huskies against the Illini was their dozen penalties, which racked up a grand total of 104 yards. Despite that, they still amassed 615 total yards of offense, won the first-down battle 30-17, and put 34 points on the board.

Putting that in to perspective, it’s scary to think what may happen if Washington can continue its highly-efficient ways on offense without sending itself backwards every so often with flags. While the Huskies probably won’t immediately turn into a high-flying Oregon-type team, if they clean up their penalties, they very well could start regularly pushing the 40-point mark.