SAN FRANCISCO — One of the main reasons senior quarterback Keith Price chose to play at Washington was coach Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian, who as a quarterback led BYU to a 14-1 season and a Cotton Bowl victory in 1997, took over a Husky program in 2009 reeling from a winless season in 2008.
But after five years, Sarkisian left Washington to accept the head coaching job at USC.
The Huskies have named former Boise State coach Chris Petersen as the new boss in Seattle, with Marques Tuiasosopo serving as the interim coach.
But Price said that despite the distractions and changes in the program, he and his teammates are focused on winning the Fight Hunger Bowl Friday (7:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) against BYU.
“It’s a sad story. But obviously it’s a business decision,” Price said of Sarkisian's departure. “When you come here as a 17-year-old, you feel like you’re going to have the same coach the whole time. But coaches leave. As a young player, it’s hard to digest. For me, as an older guy, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I knew it was going to come sooner or later. I knew if he got this place rocking, he’d be gone. I’m still focused. We know BYU is an excellent opponent. It’s kind of my job to make sure I keep all the other guys’ heads straight.”
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall says Washington (8-4) is the best team his squad will have faced in the past nine seasons of bowl games. He added that an interim coach won’t affect the game.
“No, it doesn’t because they’re a good team,” he said. “I’m not sure that we can count on any kind of change. We need to prepare for them like they’re going to be at our best. Anything less than that would be a surprise. They have good players. The four teams they’ve lost to are all top 20 teams. They score a lot of points. They have good talent and they’re hard to score on on defense. They’re 8-4 in a good league, losing only to top 20 teams. I think it’s a significant test.”
Washington running back Bishop Sankey said Tuiasosopo — a former Husky quarterback and MVP of the 2001 Rose Bowl — has done a good job in his interim role.
“He’s been great," Sankey said. "We all respect him not only as a coach, but as a player for what he’s done for the university. He’s 100 percent invested and we are as well.”
“He’s awesome,” Price said of Tuiasosopo. “A couple of times he was late to our quarterbacks meetings to take care of head coach obligations. Bullets were flying for a couple of weeks. Now he’s settled in. He hasn’t changed one bit. Guys are playing freely. That’s all you can ask for.”
The Cougar defense will be challenged by Washington’s dynamic offense. The Huskies are No. 14 in the nation in rushing (243.1 ypg) and No. 19 in scoring (38.5 ppg).
Sankey is one of the nation’s premier running backs, having rushed for 1,775 yards this season — a school record. He is expected to declare for April’s NFL draft.
“He’s a hard runner. He jukes a lot of people,” said BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “He just breaks tackles and runs hard. He’s fast, too. He has the combination of everything. He’s a good player.”
Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (33 receptions, 413 yards) and wide receiver Jaydon Mickens (62 receptions, 681 yards) provide plenty of targets for Price to throw to.
After putting together three consecutive seven-win seasons, the Huskies broke through to claim eight victories this season.
“Finally reaching the eight-win plateau is an awesome feat for them,” said Tuiasosopo, whose future at Washington after the bowl game is still undecided.
Price said this game against BYU is a big one for him and his teammates.
“We haven’t won eight games since 2001,” he said. “To get nine wins would be awesome for this program. It would give the program a foundation. The best is yet to come.”
Petersen, who will officially take over the Washington program after the game, has attended a few bowl practices and has addressed the team.
But for Price, despite all the changes at the top of the program, the bottom line is that the players just want to win the game.
“We just need to play. Nothing else really matters,” he said. “The coaches aren’t out there anyway. We’re playing for each other, regardless of who’s coaching. We’re going to play our butts off for ourselves.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company