The last time the University of Washington football team walked onto the field at Stanford Stadium, the Huskies were riding high and sporting a new national ranking. The Huskies walked off the field that day battered and humbled.
UW will do everything in its power to make sure history doesn’t
repeat itself today, when it takes a No. 22 national ranking into a game that will pit two of the three remaining unbeatens in the Pacific-12 Conference’s North Division.
“It’s the biggest game that we’ve played in a long time. Everybody knows that,” said UW junior safety Justin Glenn, whose Huskies play the seventh-ranked Cardinal at 5 p.m.
The last time the Huskies played a game pitting two ranked teams was in the 2003 opener, when Cody Pickett and Co. led 17th-ranked UW into Columbus, Ohio, and got drubbed 28-9 by an Ohio State team that was ranked No. 2. Thirty-six ranked teams have played the Huskies since then — UW has knocked off eight of them — but never on those rare occasions when Washington was part of the national AP poll.
The Huskies went six years without being included in the poll before sneaking in at No. 24 on Sept. 20, 2009. Coming off a home upset of third-ranked USC, UW went into Stanford the following week and got hammered by Toby Gerhart and the Cardinal run game. The Cardinal’s 34-14 win knocked UW out of the poll, and the Huskies remained on the outside looking in for more than two years before returning to relevance last Sunday.
But that’s only part of the motivation for UW. The Huskies (5-1 overall, 3-0 in the Pac-12) are one of three unbeaten teams in the Pac-12 North, joining national title contenders Stanford and Oregon. A win tonight would not only keep UW in the Rose Bowl hunt, but assert the Huskies as a potential national power.
It seems like enough to have the UW players frothing at the mouth, but coach Steve Sarkisian has done his best to keep them from putting too much stock in this game.
“We don’t want to hype it up too much because every game’s a big game,” senior left tackle Senio Kelemete said. “Like coach Sark says: ‘We’re climbing a mountain, and every game is another step.'”
Sarkisian has been using the mountain climber metaphor for a couple of weeks, saying the Huskies can’t waste time looking back at what they’ve done, nor can they afford to look up toward what lies ahead.
Sarkisian himself has been more relaxed than usual this week. He said it’s because he knows this team better than his first two UW squads and has a good feel for what to expect from the Huskies tonight.
“I feel good about where we are,” he said two days ago, before the team left for Northern California. “My biggest thing now is we’ll see if it is good enough. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Stanford (6-0, 3-0) marks the fourth top-10 team the Huskies have faced since Sarkisian arrived in 2009, and UW has had mixed results in the previous three. After the 2009 win over No. 3 USC, Sarkisian’s Huskies got pummeled by an aggregate score of 109-37 in losses to No. 8 Nebraska and No. 1 Oregon last season. UW held its own for a half against the Ducks last November, but Oregon pulled away in the second half.
This year’s Stanford team hasn’t shown the knockout power of the 2010 Ducks, but the Cardinal have been putting teams away with body blows in the first (outscoring opponents 50-0) and third (79-6) quarters. Stanford is one of just 10 unbeatens left in college football, and looks like a legitimate title contender.
What UW can’t do is get caught in the headlights of a locomotive, which is pretty much what happened the last time the Huskies played at Stanford. In that 2009 game, Gerhart had 200 of Stanford’s 321 rushing yards while leaving helpless UW defenders in his wake all afternoon. The Cardinal offensive line had its way with the Huskies, then had a similar effect on UW in a rematch at Husky Stadium last fall.
The Huskies haven’t forgotten.
“I went back and watched that game” earlier this week, Huskies linebacker Cort Dennison said of last season’s 41-0 loss. “They pushed us around. It was embarrassing. It was an embarrassing loss for us. We not only let down our coaches, we let down our fans. We just didn’t bring it. We got out-physicaled, and we can’t do that again.”
When Sarkisian arrived at UW 3½ years ago, he promised it wouldn’t take very long to get the program back to where it once was. The Huskies have a chance to take another step today, in what might be the biggest game of the Sarkisian era thus far.
“I don’t know how long ‘very long’ is, but I did think we could get back to where we were competing for conference championships,” he said. “This is kind of one of those types of games.”