By Scott M. Johnson Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — On an autumn afternoon under darkening skies, the University of Washington football team proved that you can put lipstick on a pig, but in the end it is still a pig.
Likewise, you can alternate uniform colors, wrap a former USC coach in purple clothing and none of it will disguise the fact that the Huskies are still a long way from being among the elite teams in the Pacific-12 Conference.
Fortunately for UW football, the Pac-12 elite are now in the rearview mirror.
One of the most daunting five-game stretches in program history left the Huskies sitting at .500 at the midway point of the season — and that’s not necessarily a bad place to be, depending on where one expected this program to rise in Year 4 of the Steve Sarkisian era. UW football has risen from the ashes, but the program still has yet to catch fire.
No. 3 LSU, No. 8 Stanford, No. 2 Oregon and No. 11 USC are now officially behind UW, and only one ranked team — the nation’s most shocking Cinderella story in Oregon State — remains in the Huskies’ path. That means things are about to turn around quickly, but it also means there won’t be many more opportunities to live up to that “Take the Next Step” motto that UW carried into its 2012 season.
That nationally-televised upset of No. 8 Stanford 18 days ago proved that the Huskies are on the right track, but the two games since then have sounded like the familiar chugging of a train unable to make the steep incline.
Saturday’s 24-14 loss to USC follows a 52-21 flogging at the hands of Oregon and was eerily similar in terms of first-half domination. Both losses serve as further reminders that the Huskies are still a middle-of-the-Pac program with very little, if any, national relevance.
The Huskies’ Saturday performance felt like a microcosm of this program’s upward climb toward respectability. Every momentum-lifting play put UW on the verge of being back on the map, and yet the proverbial hump proved too daunting for the Huskies.
Keith Price’s Houdini-like escape-and-forward-pitch to Bishop Sankey late in the first quarter set up a touchdown that would get UW back into the game. Just over four minutes later, USC distanced itself with a touchdown of its own.
After Desmond Trufant blocked a field goal and brought energy back into the stadium midway through the third quarter, and the Huskies marched down the field to cut the deficit to 24-14, a missed field goal by UW’s Travis Coons on the next possession sapped the feel-good electricity from the rafters.
Then when the Huskies marched down the field again, all the way inside the USC 5-yard line with a shot at pulling within three points four minutes into the fourth quarter, Price fumbled away the ball and another golden opportunity at putting UW football back on the map.
Then finally, after Josh Shirley’s fourth-down sack at the UW 36-yard line gave the Huskies one final shot, the offense whimpered into the night with a sack, a misfired pass and a game-clinching interception at midfield.
When all was said and done, the UW defense held the Trojans without a single point over the final 341/2 minutes, but the Huskies wasted the performance by closing out Saturday’s game with a missed field goal, two fumbles and an interception on four consecutive drives when it mattered most.
This is not to say that the Huskies’ season was set to flames during another double-digit loss to a nationally-ranked team Saturday. UW gave some encouraging signs — a maturing offensive line, a more resilient quarterback, an improving secondary that got quite a boost from first-time starter Marcus Peters.
But these Huskies are still what they have been for Sarkisian’s four-year tenure, that being a pesky little brother who can scratch the heck out of his muscle-bound brothers but still can’t bring them to their knees.
Things are about to get better, no doubt.
Five wins in a stretch of six games is not out of the question, and an 8-4 mark heading into bowl play would mark improvement from back-to-back seven-win seasons. But there are no guarantees there, not unless you come from one of the elite Pac-12 football destinations — places like Eugene, Ore., or Stanford, Calif., or Southern California.
If you’re one of the other teams from this conference trying desperately to catch up, things just aren’t that easy.
Except in one way. There are the elite teams, and then there is the rest of the Pac-12.
Saturday served as another reminder that the Huskies, for all their annual upsets and tantalizing glimmers, are still stuck at that traffic light on the intersection of On-the-Rise and Pac-12-Also-Ran.
The murderer’s row of LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC is finally over. You can breathe a sigh of relief, Husky Nation.
But when it comes to UW football putting itself back on the map, don’t hold your breath.