A replay of the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl is on tap in the Pacific Northwest this weekend as Washington re-opens Husky Stadium while hosting the 19th-ranked Boise State Broncos in non-conference action on Saturday night.
The Huskies, under the direction of fifth-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, are finally back in their home stadium following an extensive renovation to the 93-year old facility. The last time the team played in the venue was Nov. 5, 2011, so the Huskies are hoping to lift the lid off a new season in grand style.
In 2012, Washington began with three wins in four tries, key among them being a stunning upset of Stanford, while the one setback being a blowout loss to LSU on the road (41-3). But then the team hit a dry spell with three consecutive defeats before rolling up four straight Pac-12 Conference triumphs. Unfortunately, the Huskies dropped their annual rivalry game with Washington State (31-28) in overtime, leaving them at 7-5 overall and 5-4 in conference play heading into the postseason.
The winningest football team in the nation since 1997, the Broncos have a record of 168-35 (.828), and have been even more dominant under the direction of head coach Chris Petersen who is a staggering 84-8 (.913) through his first seven campaigns in Idaho.
The Broncos have won no fewer than 10 games in each of Petersen's seasons and for a span of four years (2008-11) the team won 12 or more each time out, the only school to achieve that lofty feat since 1900.
Boise State is hoping for a better start to 2013 than it had last year when it stumbled out of the gate versus Michigan State on the road in a 17-13 setback. The Broncos did turn it around however, stringing together seven straight wins before suffering a hard-fought 21-19 loss at home versus San Diego State.
Nevertheless, BSU finished strong with three more regular-season victories, making the team 10-2 overall and 7-1 in what was supposed to be their final year in Mountain West Conference before moving to the Big East for football. Luckily, the Broncos decided that remaining in the MWC was to their advantage and are again a favorite to take the crown in what has become a two-division league with a total of 12 teams, following the demise of the Western Athletic Conference's football program.
"The football programs in the Mountain West Conference continue to get stronger and we look forward to the challenge and competing in a strong league for many years to come," coach Petersen remarked.
Washington won the first-ever meeting between the programs in 2007 by a score of 24-10 in Seattle, but last year the Broncos returned the favor with a narrow 28-26 triumph during bowl season.
After a rough start to 2012, quarterback Joe Southwick ended up completing almost 67 percent of his passes for 2,730 yards and 19 touchdowns. The good news for Southwick is that he has his top two receivers back in Matt Miller and Kirby Moore who combined for 102 receptions, more than 1,100 yards and six TDs last season.
"Kirby is one of the rocks of our offense," coach Petersen said during Fall Camp. "He is always out here competing, he is always going full speed and he is always giving good effort."
Another holdover is Holden Huff who, with just 17 catches in 13 games, averaged almost 15 yards per grab and tied for second on the team with four receiving scores. Now a sophomore, Jay Ajayi figures to get more action after placing second on the team a year ago with 548 yards and four scores on 82 attempts. Placing sixth in the country in sacks allowed (0.77 per game), the offensive line will have to fill a few vacancies as well, although Charles Leno and Matt Paradis are coming back as returning starters in the trenches.
While the BSU offense continues to pull out a few gimmicks now and then, the defense will once again be the focal point of the program even though it too is going to be rebuilding. Last season the unit ranked third in the nation in forced turnovers with 36 and second overall in turnover margin with a plus-1.54 per game, but those sort of numbers will be hard to come by in 2013 given the slew of new faces that will be trying to grab a spot in the starting lineup.
Gone is top tackler J.C. Percy who hammered out an impressive 118 stops. So dominant was Percy, his 70 unassisted tackles was the same number of overall tackles that Jeremy Ioane managed as the second-best tackler on the squad. Ioane's return at safety also, along with that of Darian Thompson, means the Broncos have one of the best secondaries in the league once more this season as both players logged three interceptions for BSU. Earning a spot on the 2013 Preseason All-Mountain West Football Defensive Team is Demarcus Lawrence who comes back after claiming All-MWC First-Team honors following a 2012 campaign in which he led the Broncos in tackles for loss (13.5), sacks (9.5) and forced fumbles (four), not to mention registering the only blocked kick of the season for the group.
Another player to keep an eye on is junior linebacker Corey Bell who came on strong with four starts in the final five games of the season, finishing with 45 total tackles, 22 of them solo efforts.
After starting all 13 games for Washington as a junior, Keith Price is back to reprise his role as quarterback for the squad. His 2,726 passing yards represented the sixth-highest single-season total in program history, but still the team was eighth in the conference and 81st nationally with 212.9 ypg through the air.
A key outlet for Price will be wide receiver Kasen Williams who was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2012 thanks to his 77 receptions for 878 yards, both of which were top-10, single-season efforts at UW. Unfortunately, the unit will be without the services of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, recognized as one of the top performers at his position, due to a broken pinkie finger on his right hand.
Bishop Sankey is slated to handle the bulk of the running back tasks again after he finished 2012 with 1,439 yards, the third-highest total in UW single- season history.
Defensively, there were only a handful of games that got out of control for the Huskies a season ago. For the most part, the team was able to hang in there by allowing a respectable 24.2 ppg and the hope is that linebackers John Timu and Shaq Thompson will get some added support in 2013. Both players are All-Pac-12 performers in the middle for the Huskies.
Safety Sean Parker, second on the unit in total tackles with 77, 14 stops behind Timu, was responsible for three forced fumbles, while defensive end Josh Shirley piled up six forced fumbles and was tied for the team lead with nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
"No one wants to get their emotions too high where they can't control themselves," said Washington defensive lineman Hau'oli Kikaha, who missed all of 2012 because of injury, of coming back to Husky Stadium. "But at the same time you have to respect what's going on around you: This beautiful, new stadium; being back here after being in the Seahawks' stadium for a whole year. You don't want to take anything away from that, but you have to be focused in on every single play, at that moment."