By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
STANFORD, Calif. — The University of Washington football team will be in an unfamiliar place tonight, and not just because the Huskies are playing their first road game of the 2009 season.
When Washington (2-1) takes the field for a 6 p.m. game against Stanford, the Huskies will actually be in the crosshairs. That is, the curious eyes of the football world will be upon them.
For the first time in six years, and a span of 70 games, the UW will enter today’s contest with a national ranking. The 24th-ranked Huskies are in somewhat unchartered territory after shocking No. 3 USC last weekend.
“I’m sure it caught people’s attention — across the country, let alone the Pac-10,” receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty said earlier this week. “But once the ball’s snapped on Saturday, you have to execute and do all the right things. Whether or not they give us extra attention this week, I don’t know.”
Head coach Steve Sarkisian has said all week that the ranking is nice but that the Huskies still have a ways to go.
“We recognize it, but it really doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter what other people think of us. That doesn’t guarantee us anymore wins or losses, so you have to move past it.”
One thing that the Huskies did not earn with the USC upset was a role as the favorite. Despite making its top-25 debut, Washington enters today’s game as a seven-point underdog.
“That fuels us even more,” said senior linebacker Donald Butler, whose Huskies have been an underdog for most of his career. “We’ll take that.”
The Huskies, who snapped a 15-game losing streak just two weeks ago, are still fighting for national respectability. But they’re also in the unfamiliar position of hunted instead of hunter, having a piece of first place in the Pacific-10 Conference for the first time since Sept. 2006.
While all signs might point toward a so-called letdown game, Sarkisian has confidence in his Huskies after the way they handled the week.
“I think these guys enjoyed that experience (of the USC win), and they want to recreate it,” he said. “And the best way to recreate it is by doing what you did to get to that point, and that’s preparing and practicing really well.”
The Sarkisian era takes another step today, when the Huskies play their first road game after three weeks at home. That doesn’t seem to concern Sarkisian, either — especially considering the venue. After spending all of training camp and the first three weeks pumping music into practices, the Huskies prepared for Stanford in near silence this week.
“It’s a different setting when you go to Stanford,” Sarkisian said. “It’s not one where it’s a raucous crowd. It can get loud, but it’s not a setting where it’s constant.”
Not that the Huskies expect an easy afternoon on the field. The Cardinal (2-1) have gotten off to a fast start, with the only loss coming after squandering a 17-0 lead against Wake Forest. Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who took over a program in similar doldrums to the one Sarkisian joined, has the Cardinal headed in the right direction.
Earlier this week, Harbaugh said he didn’t know anything about his team’s place as a seven-point favorite, but he’d certainly heard about the Huskies’ sudden rise into the Top 25.
“There is no question this Washington team has proven they’re a heck of a team,” Harbaugh said. “I can’t say enough about the job that Steve and his staff have done. It’s a whole different team.”
That’s about as big a compliment as the Huskies could hear. After an 0-12 campaign in 2008, the UW is hoping to close the door on the past and start building a promising future.
“Last year was last year,” safety Nate Williams said. “This is a whole new year, obviously. We’re just going to keep riding this thing until the wheels come off.”