SALT LAKE CITY — When Cort Dennison was asked by Seattle media about returning to his hometown to play at the University of Utah, he downplayed the trip.
After the Washington Huskies dominated the Utes at Rice Eccles Saturday, 31-14, Dennison admitted he might have been disingenuous about what the opportunity meant to the linebacker who graduated from Judge Memorial Catholic High School four years ago.
"It feels great," said Dennison, who leads his team in tackles in his senior season at Washington. "I've had this game circled on my calendar ever since they joined the conference. I couldn't ask for a more perfect script. We came out and played a complete game: offense, defense, special teams, a ton of turnovers."
When asked about how he'd downplayed it earlier in the week, he explained:
"I just didn't want to get my emotions overhyped, and I didn't want the context to get out of hand," he said after greeting his family and friends. "I realized it's still a football game. You've still got to play football. Obviously it was fun. Coming back here, I've never played in this stadium. My high school didn't make it to the semifinals. So this was my first time playing here, great experience, something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
It was a memorable performance by a defense that has played in the shadow of one of the country's most explosive offenses.
"We definitely had a chip on our shoulder, and we wanted to prove that we're a lot better defense than we've showed so far this year," he said. "I've dreamed about some stuff like this before, but no (I didn't expect five Utah turnovers). We're definitely going to enjoy this. We just beat a really, really good football team."
The first half, however, was all about special teams and defense, while quarterback Keith Price and the offense seemed stymied by Utah's vaunted defense.
In the first half Price was sacked twice and had just 81 yards passing. Head coach Steve Sarkisian said it was obvious what needed to be addressed at halftime.
"We're not playing our best football as a team," he said. "Two phases we were playing well. Obviously special teams — huge play on the opening kickoff. Defense was playing great. We just had to get our offense back in order and part of that was getting Keith back in order. For the first time this year, we saw him a little jittery in the pocket. We just had to get him settled down. (He needed to) play within the system and allowing things to work and not rushing and hurrying. We were able to do that in the second half."
The coach believes the hype about how good he is, and how important the game was, got to the normally light-hearted, fun-loving sophomore.
"That's Keith's personality," said Sarkisian of why he joked with Price about the nerves. "Keith has got a very carefree attitude. I made him stand up in front of the team and say, 'Hey, can we go back to playing Keith Price football? Is that okay? Can we do that now?' The team went nuts in the locker room."
Price, who proved his toughness playing with two sore knees and an injured ankle, laughed when asked about the halftime challenge.
"He was joking, but I could see where he was coming from," he said. "He challenged me, and I think as a group we stepped up to the challenge."
Dennison said there isn't much that can stop a guy like Price when he's playing well.
"He's a warrior," he said. "He's a competitor. When you have a complete competitor like Keith who can do so many things for our team, and you believe in him and you let him know, 'Hey, we're behind you', you can do anything. I couldn't be more proud of my teammates for what they did."