It isn’t a stretch to say the Huskies’ season was on the line when they hosted the Cardinal on Saturday, as a loss almost surely would have ended their Pac-12 title hopes.
Two years ago, it was the “we’re back” game.
Washington’s 38-point dismantling of Stanford in 2016 signaled to the country that it had re-established itself as one of college football’s elite programs.
This year? It was the “we’re still here” game — a reminder the Huskies are still the key holders of the Pac-12 penthouse.
There is no disputing 2018 has been disappointing for UW and its fan base. After a season-opening loss to Auburn took the wind out of Washington’s sails, two conference losses in October nearly capsized the ship.
It isn’t a stretch to say the Huskies’ season was on the line when they hosted the Cardinal on Saturday, as a loss almost surely would have ended their Pac-12 title hopes. So what did they do in their 27-23 win? Show everyone why they were so inundated with hype before this season started.
Well, at least in the first half they did.
It’s hard to think of a stretch this year in which Washington played better than it did in the opening quarters Saturday. It started the game with a touchdown drive that took just eight plays to move 73 yards. It followed with an 80-yard touchdown drive on its next possession, when the Huskies found the end zone two plays after converting on fourth down and 11. It scored another seven points on its next possession, needing six plays after cornerback Byron Murphy’s interception gave UW the ball on Stanford’s 26.
The Huskies (7-3 overall, 5-2 in the Pac-12) built a 21-point lead before you could say “woof,” giving them the necessary distance to withstand a second-half Cardinal charge. Some might say this season has stunk based on the preseason expectations, but after Saturday, there’s still a chance Roses replace that stench by the end of the year.
“The mindset was that we gotta win this game,” said Huskies defensive lineman Greg Gaines. “Losing like that (against Cal last week) is the worst feeling ever. It feels a lot better now.”
The fact is, the Huskies are a different team when they have running back Myles Gaskin, who was banged up in the loss to Oregon and absent in the loss to Cal. Washington’s all-time leading rusher returned Saturday and racked up 148 yards on 28 carries, single-handedly keeping several drives alive.
Another fact is that a focused Jake Browning is still one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. Seven days after being benched for two series versus Cal, the senior quarterback posted 194 yards on 16 of 27 passing and repeatedly came through in the clutch — most notably on third-and-three with nine minutes left in the fourth, when his 18-yard completion to Aaron Fuller led to a field goal that put Washington back up by two scores.
And, of course, there’s the fact UW’s defense continues to shine, even if it gave up more points than it would have liked. The interception by Murphy, the subsequent pick by Gaines (who was aided by a Ben Burr-Kirven tip) and the game-ending pick by Taylor Rapp may have been the difference in the game.
“I think we were all hungry. Everyone was locked in,” Murphy said. “We control our own destiny. We gotta keep it going.”
Nobody will contend Saturday was a dominant performance for the Huskies, who, with a four-point lead, gave Stanford the ball back on its own 15 with 2:05 left in the game. But nobody will dispute this was a quality win that came when the Huskies needed it most.
The 69,690 fans screaming in the final minutes told you all you needed to know about the Huskies’ season. It told you that despite the shortcomings the Huskies have experienced this year, there is still a whole lot to fight for.
After its bye week, Washington will face Oregon State and Washington State. If the Huskies win those two, they’ll be in the Pac-12 championship game for the second time in three years, and if they take that one, will hop on a plane for Pasadena.
Obviously, this hasn’t been the season the Huskies hoped it would be. But in a way, the bumps and setbacks have given this season a certain charm.
Washington is still in position to do something great. Saturday, it made sure everybody knows that.