By JOHN SLEEPER
STANFORD, Calif. – A funny feeling shrouds this game.
Yes, the Washington Huskies are ranked ninth, are knocking at the door of a possible BCS bowl game and come into Stanford a 7-point favorite.
But anyone who has followed Washington knows it hardly has played the part of the highly ranked team. The Huskies committed six turnovers two weeks ago in a 21-15 victory at Arizona State and had to rely on a 23-point fourth quarter to down Cal 36-24 last week.
Sure, the Cardinal is 3-4 and scratching for a bowl berth, but it also is brimming with good feeling, with a last-second TD pass that beat USC 32-30 last week.
And don’t think Stanford hasn’t noticed Washington’s recent struggles.
“Seeing how Cal played Washington, we know they’re very beatable,” Stanford tailback Kerry Carter said.
How long can Washington survive its on-again, off-again play? On one hand, the Huskies are, as coach Rick Neuheisel is wont to say, finding a way to win. But he knows as well as anyone that his team can’t play as it did the last two games and expect to continue winning.
Certainly, it can’t expect anyone to deflate to the extent the Golden Bears did last week, with three turnovers and a blocked punt on four straight possessions in the fourth quarter.
“The personality of our team is one where we feel it out,” Neuheisel said. “All of a sudden, something ticks us off and we go crazy.”
The Huskies haven’t won games as much as their last two opponents have lost them. Arizona State was every bit as turnover-prone as Washington was. And if true freshman Rich Alexis hadn’t stunned the Sun Devils with an 86-yard scoring run late in the game … well, you do the math.
So what happens the rest of the time? Why the early fumbles? The vanilla defense? The dropped passes? And how does it turn itself around in the nick of time?
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Neuheisel said. “Ultimately, it has to be a deal where the kids want to play very badly and can’t wait to go out and do it. Usually, it takes some sort of spark, some kind of big play. Somebody makes something happen that gets everybody excited, then we kind of go.”
If the Huskies have the laidback, surfer-dude personality until absolutely necessary, it is impossible to characterize the Cardinal.
How to describe a team that annually drops a game to lowly San Jose State, then comes back to beat Texas? Last year, Stanford lost to San Jose State, got blown out by Texas (69-17), then went to the Rose Bowl.
Remember ‘96? Coach Tyrone Willingham’s team started 2-5, then won its last five games, including a blowout victory of Michigan State in the Sun Bowl.
Say this, then, for the Cardinal. It’s a resilient team. Credit Willingham for that. He might be as bland as yogurt, but he’s always at an even keel. And maybe that spreads to his teams.
USC has fallen apart. Stanford simply hasn’t.
In fact, the Cardinal has reason to get revved after its thrilling victory last week.
“This team has faced some down times, but it has refused to give up,” Willingham said. “It’s kept working and kept coming back to where it put itself in a position to win against USC. So I hope we’ll be able to put that personality forward.”
While Washington has been trumpeting its ability to keep working, to never stop until zeroes are on the clock, Stanford is a team that claims the same.
“I would believe that what the USC ballgame showed was character,” Willingham said. “I think anytime you can display character, it provides you an opportunity to take it forward. That’s something a little deeper than a catch, or a little deeper than a throw. That’s a personality. Therefore, you have an opportunity to demonstrate that time and time again.”