By John Sleeper
SEATTLE – If the Washington Huskies ever needed one of their habitual storybook endings, this game would be it.
In Stanford, the Huskies are playing host to the nation’s hottest team, one that is coming off two victories against top-five teams Oregon and UCLA. The Cardinal stands among five Pacific-10 Conference teams with one conference loss and has climbed 19 spots in the Associated Press poll in two weeks.
“Hopefully, we can play our best game because I’m sure we’ll have to,” UW coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Tenth-ranked Stanford comes into Husky Stadium unlike any of the Stanford teams that haven’t won in Seattle in 25 years. Forget the soft, offense-first teams that gave up more acreage than Occupied France.
The Cardinal ranks 11th in the nation in rushing defense, giving up an average of 93.3 yards a game. The Huskies gave up 301 yards to UCLA Heisman Trophy candidate DeShaun Foster. Stanford yielded just 77.
“It is a very well choreographed defensive unit,” Neuheisel said. “It looks to stop you running the ball, force you to beat them by throwing, then make plays on the ball. I don’t think there’s a more opportunistic defense in the country. The ball gets topped and it seemingly always finds its way into a Stanford defender’s hands.”
Experience is one reason for the upturn. The defense will lose all but two members – nose tackle Trey Freeman and defensive tackle Matt Leonard – to graduation next year. The entire secondary, led by second-team all-conference safety Tank Williams, will be gone after this season.
So, while the Cardinal might not have some of the jaw-dropping physical attributes that, say, a UCLA has, this is a defense that has been around.
“You can look at them and think that you have a physical matchup that you like, but pretty soon, you find out that it isn’t nearly what you thought,” Neuheisel said. “It’s going to take a great effort on our part to move the ball.”
Ah, moving the ball.
The No. 11 Huskies have come around gradually as an offense, thanks to a young offensive line that’s been developing in fits and starts.
The high point of efficiency came last Saturday in the Huskies’ 33-31 victory at Arizona State, in which Washington rolled up 440 total yards, 188 on the ground. Tailback Willie Hurst had his best game as a Husky with 185 yards.
“They’re growing and improving every game,” Neuheisel said.
But if the line is giving the running attack a much-needed boost, its development is no less impressive in protecting quarterback Cody Pickett.
In the last two games, the offensive line has given up just three sacks. And in a way the third-degree shoulder separation Pickett suffered against USC Oct. 6 has been a source of inspiration.
“We’ve rejuvenated,” offensive tackle Khalif Barnes said. “Since SC, we’ve rededicated ourselves. Nobody gets to Cody.”
In that time, Pickett threw for a school-record 455 yards against Arizona, 252 against ASU.
“Throwing’s what I like to do,” Pickett said. “It’s what I came here to do. The O-line is giving me time to do it.”
It will need to give Pickett that time if the Huskies are to get by Stanford. The five-way tie for first place in the Pac-10 now is akin to a single elimination tournament. One loss likely means a lesser bowl game.
But in a way that’s the fun.
“This is the position we wanted to be in,” Neuheisel said. “We wanted to be in the hunt in November, and certainly, that’s where we find ourselves.”