SEATTLE — That collective breath you heard coming from Montlake was the sound of a football program exhaling after one of the toughest stretches in recent memory.
The University of Washington is fresh off an upset of seventh-ranked Oregon State, which marked the fifth top-15 team the Huskies faced in a span of seven games. The current top 25 includes six teams — No. 4 Oregon, No. 5 LSU, No. 11 Oregon State, No. 14 Stanford, No. 17 USC and No. 22 Arizona — that have played UW.
And so if the Huskies (4-4 overall, 2-3 in the Pacific-12 Conference) appear to be bearing less weight on their axles this week, it could have something to do with the difference between the road ahead and what’s in the rearview mirror.
The regular season — and it’s beginning to look like a lock that this Huskies team, despite its flaws, will get a bowl invitation — concludes with the bottom four teams in the Pac-12. California, Utah, Colorado and Washington State have a combined conference record of 4-17 and a winning percentage (.190) that might even make the Seattle Mariners blush.
Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian wasn’t quite making bowl plans Monday, when he referenced the Pac-12’s recent run of parity as a reason for concern, but it’s apparent that he expects the best UW has to offer to be on display in the coming weeks.
“There will come a game when we’ll hit the stride and we’ll get rolling, and we’ll close out the season,” Sarkisian said when asked about UW’s offensive struggles. “I just hope that that game starts this week, and not later.”
Despite a short week and having to play on the road, where UW has yet to win in four tries this season, the Huskies have to feel somewhat confident heading into Friday’s game at Cal. The Bears (3-6 overall, 2-4 in the Pac-12) are suffering through one of their worst seasons of the Jeff Tedford era, and there are already rumors about this being the longtime coach’s last year in Berkeley.
UW also has two current assistants — offensive coordinator Eric Kisau and defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi — who came from Cal and know the Bears’ system and personnel well.
And yet Sarkisian, who this time last week was beginning to take as much heat as he has as coach of the Huskies, seemed genuinely concerned when asked about the upcoming schedule Monday.
“Heck no,” he said when asked if there was a possibility that the Huskies might let up because of the drop in level of competition. “You watch this conference, and week in and week out you never know what’s going to happen. You better come ready to play. … There’s definitely no letdown — (just) ask the players.”
If anything, the UW program is on a high this week following Saturday’s upset of seventh-ranked Oregon State. It served as yet another reminder that the Huskies are nipping at the heels of some of the conference’s top programs, even if UW has yet to sign a mortgage in the neighborhood of Pac-12 powers.
Saturday’s win also took some of the heat off the program and capped off quite a run of quality opponents. The Huskies were coming off a blowout loss at Arizona, and things were looking pretty bleak for UW football this time last week.
“That was a long week,” Sarkisian said Monday. “It had been a long month.”
There’s an argument to be made that a .500 record at this point in the season is worthy of celebration, especially when considering the play of the UW offense. Having survived top-15 programs like LSU, Oregon, USC, Stanford and Oregon State, the Huskies can start turning their sights toward struggling programs over the final month of the regular season.
All of a sudden, the eight-win threshold that seemed to prove UW football is still headed in the right direction doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
But Sarkisian knows that the Huskies will need to pick up their play if they expect to get through their final four games unscathed. UW’s offensive struggles have been particularly alarming, even in wins over ranked teams Stanford and Oregon State. The Huskies have scored more than 21 points only once all season — and that was against Portland State of the Big Sky Conference.
“Our inconsistency is just glaring to me,” Sarkisian said of his offense Monday afternoon. “It’s not one guy, it’s not two guys; I just feel like we keep taking our turns. … For whatever reason or another, we just stub our own toes with mistakes we really shouldn’t be making. That’s the fight for us. I know that we are better than the way we have been playing.”
Proving that might be as easy as finding less-qualified opponents.
And now that the daunting part of UW’s schedule is behind the Huskies, maybe November will offer just such an opportunity.