- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Washington made a strong statement with its season-opening win over Boise State. The Huskies dominated a ranked team on both sides of the ball in a 38-6 victory, and that's why they vaulted to No. 19 in the AP poll.
Yet, one game does not make a season, and a faceplant against Illinois on Saturday at Solider Field could be all the more damning. Everyone saw what the Huskies can do when they play well, so a bar of high expectations has been set. Crashing into that bar now would feel like a major underachievement, a failure of focus and mental toughness.
And Huskies coaches, players and fans are well-aware of their team's struggles on the road. They are 3-10 away from Seattle over the past two seasons so a visit to a Central Time Zone to take on a better-than-expected Illini team, which is 2-0 after whipping Cincinnati, presents another test for a program trying to take a step forward after three consecutive 7-6 seasons.
Coach Steve Sarkisian thinks he's found a cure for the road woes and inconsistency of his program: Maturity. He's repeatedly said he believes this is his best team since he took over the Huskies in 2009. That's based on talent, but growing up is also a part of it.
"As much or more than anything, our football team has really matured over the last few years," Sarkisian said. "This is as mature as we’ve been since I’ve been here."
That maturity revealed itself against Boise State, but it also is about the practice and preparation. That needs to be consistent with every opponent, and the Illini will present challenges, particularly to the Huskies' defense.
Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been lights out thus far working under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who was fired last year after coaching at Western Michigan for eight seasons. Scheelhaase has passed for 728 yards in two games, with six touchdowns and just one interception. He's completing 74 percent of his throws with a sturdy 10.6 yards per attempt.
Sarkisian called the Illini offense "dynamic," and noted that six different players have produced plays of 30 or more yards.
"We have to try to find a way to affect the quarterback, whether it’s via pass rush or disguising our coverages," Sarkisian said. "Because when he gets comfortable, they’re really hard to stop."
As for the Huskies' offense, it's hoping to get the same results from quarterback Keith Price, who was dynamic himself against Boise State, overcoming an early interception to throw for 324 yards and two touchdowns. Price also gets a key weapon back as All-American tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will play at Illinois after being suspended from the Boise State game due to a spring DUI.
The Huskies looked deep at receiver against the Broncos, but Seferian-Jenkins offers a big target who should be particularly valuable in the red zone.
“Austin’s obviously a very talented player," Sarkisian said. "He’s a weapon for us in the passing game and the running game. He’ll have a significant role in the game plan to catch the ball, whether it’s short, intermediate or long."
While the Illinois offense has put up impressive big numbers, its defense also has, but not in a good way. It's yielded 431 yards per game. Southern Illinois scored 34 points against the Illini in the season-opener.
A mature, nationally-ranked team goes into Chicago and takes care of business decisively. That's the next test for the Huskies as they try to take another step forward in the Pac-12 and national pecking order.