SEATTLE — Pejorative words have often been the phrases of preference for Washington State coach Mike Leach when describing his players during this dismal season.
He referred to certain seniors as having an “empty corpse” quality. Accused linemen of actions “bordering on cowardice.” His terms of detestation have been bountiful.
Wonder what he would say about Washington’s Bishop Sankey?
If Sankey had not flipped his commitment from Washington State to Washington in January of 2011, Leach might have had to flip through the dictionary to find something pleasant to say.
While paranoia and paltry play populate the Palouse, Sankey is rumbling toward big numbers in his sophomore season with the Huskies. His 13 rushing touchdowns are fifth in the single-season history of the school and 10 more than Washington State has. He’s also carried the ball 235 times this season, which is more rushes than the Cougars have as a team.
Leach came from Texas Tech as the architect of an “Air Raid” offense. He’s held true to that approach in his first year at Washington State. The Cougars lead the Pacific-12 Conference in passing offense at 328.6 yards per game.
But when Leach was winning at Texas Tech, he had viable running backs. In 2008, when the Red Raiders were 11-2 under Leach, Texas Tech scored 28 rushing touchdowns and ran for 1,532 yards thanks to primary backs Baron Batch (758 yards) and Shannon Woods (716). Batch averaged a hearty 6.7 yards per carry. A year later, Batch ran for 884 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Cougars’ running game this year has been abysmal. Washington State averages an astonishing 30 rushing yards per game. Sankey has two carries of more than 30 yards.
And when Washington runs, it wins. Since 1947, Washington is 184-57-3 (.760) when a Huskies player rushes for 100 yards or more in a game. Washington is 5-1 this year in the six games Sankey has run for more than 100 yards.
The first time he did it against an FBS opponent was when he ran for 144 yards against Stanford. The total was a surprise then. It continues to become more impressive from week to week as the Stanford defense shuts down opposing rushers.
Last week in its upset of Oregon, Stanford held Doak Walker Award finalist Kenjon Barner to 66 yards on 21 carries. Sankey had one fewer yard by halftime against the Cardinal.
Sankey running through Stanford came right after the dissatisfied Washington coaching staff let him know he was not doing enough.
“He had a tough week of practice,” running backs coach Joel Thomas said. “He got challenged very heavily by myself, by our offensive coaches to rise up and act as if he’s the man. Little did we know that he ripped (Stanford’s) hearts out when he was running the ball and everything.”
Thomas said that was the first turning point this season for Sankey. The next came against Cal when he fumbled twice but kept on trucking on the way to a career-high 189 yards. That was also part of a four-game grind for Sankey during which he would have at least 23 carries per game.
Thomas said Sankey’s total carries may lead to inaccurate assumptions about the pounding Sankey has taken.
“He has this knack for avoiding a direct hit,” Thomas said. “I think the carries are a little misleading. I think the wear and tear on him isn’t as heavy as some might think.”
Which is good news for Washington heading into Friday’s Apple Cup. The last time the Huskies played in Pullman, Chris Polk turned Martin Stadium into a personal playground by running for 284 yards.
That gave Cougars fans plenty of reason, beyond the expected ones, to be upset at Polk. But he did not have the baggage of a flipped commitment or an Eastern Washington background, which Spokane native Sankey will tote with him Friday afternoon.
Sankey doesn’t expect the frothing crowd to get to him.
“I don’t think really it will make a difference,” Sankey said. “We’re just going to go out and play our game.”
For the Huskies, that will include Sankey.
For the Cougars, it will include wondering what might have firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas