LAS VEGAS — When he’s not playing or preparing for a game of his own, Keith Price — the kid who grew up sleeping with a football — can usually be found watching one.
So Price knows how it works. He’s fully aware of one of the dominant story lines for Washington’s game Saturday’s game against Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. Specifically, can Price do enough to stem the criticism that has come his way? Or will the Huskies head into the offseason with the play of Price an even bigger topic of debate?
“Oh man, that’s what makes it fun, right?” Price said. “Me proving things, right? And the media having one thing to say and then the next day they have something else to say. That’s just how it is.”
Certainly, it’s how it’s been during a junior season more trying than he could have imagined. Mentioned on the periphery of the Heisman Trophy race entering the season after throwing for a school-record 33 touchdown passes as a sophomore, Price saw his numbers drop in 2012. He has 18 TD passes this season, as one example.
Price fell victim to a nasty wave of untimely turnovers — he threw the same amount of interceptions in 2012 (11) as he did in 2011, and in 31 more attempts. But they somehow seemed to feel a lot worse. There were also seven lost fumbles.
He had one of each in the final minutes of the Apple Cup, which helped Washington State rally from an 18-point deficit and hand the Huskies maybe their most devastating loss of the Steve Sarkisian era.
Never mind that Price had a 9-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio in the last three games, or that he completed 61.8 percent of his passes — fourth-best in school history. The two turnovers in the Apple Cup only further inflamed the criticism and the calls for an open competition for the job next season.
Price said he tries to brush it all off.
“It’s just funny to me,” he said of the criticism. “But I embrace it. I wouldn’t change this year for anything, not even the Heisman Trophy, because this taught me. It’s bettered me as a person. And I truly appreciate that because I never had to deal with anything like this and just seeing how people work when you are losing has really opened my eyes because I dealt with such great success in sports (in the past).”
Sometimes lost in the focus on Price’s play is how much the UW offense changed. Price was throwing to a new group of skill players with leading receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar and running back Chris Polk lost to graduation (as well as a season-ending injury to senior receiver James Johnson). Price was also playing behind a remade offensive line that had four different starters than 2011.
Price also had a new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator with Eric Kiesau replacing Doug Nussmeier, who left for a similar job at Alabama. Because Sarkisian is also heavily involved in those two roles — and calls all of the plays — it’s hard to assess the impact of that change. Price, though, said he still talks to Nussmeier regularly and that it took a while to adapt to Nussmeier’s departure.
“It was a bit different at first just trying to adjust to things,” Price said. “But it’s been the same. Coach Sark is still calling the plays. But you start to appreciate somebody more when they are gone.”
Sarkisian said the changes around Price have to be considered when analyzing how he played.
“I think he has dealt with a great deal of adversity,” Sarkisian said Wednesday. “ ... We just had a different football team this year.
“I think there are some real key areas that we can improve upon with Keith for next season as well as what we can do as an offense to improve upon to make 2013 a really special senior season for him.”
To be sure, younger quarterbacks such as Derrick Brown — this year’s backup — and Cyler Miles and Jeff Lindquist — who each redshirted as true freshman — will be more ready to give Price a challenge in 2013.
But to use a term fitting for the locale of this game, the safe money is on Price — who with 53 touchdown passes is just three away from the school record.
“At the end of the day I’m confident he is going to go out and play a really good football game Saturday against a really good Boise State team,” Sarkisian said.