Prior to the season, the Washington Huskies were little more than an afterthought in the Pac-12 as it was widely believed that they lacked the talent, particularly on defense, to challenge for a spot in the conference championship game.
With preseason No. 1 USC, the high-flying Oregon Ducks, a re-tooled Stanford squad, and up-and-comers UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon State all garnering the bulk of the early headlines, the Huskies weren't thought about with much regard. After the first two games it appeared as if that assessment was accurate, as an uninspired 21-12 home win over San Diego State followed by an embarrassing 41-3 loss at LSU had fans wondering if this was going to be another middling campaign for their beloved squad.
As expected, UW beat up on FCS foe Portland State (52-13) in week three, and then got a bye as head coach Steve Sarkisian used the time off to prepare his team for its Pac-12 opener versus Stanford. The Huskies, who were a seven- point underdog despite playing in their hometown on Thursday night, rallied to upset the eighth-ranked Cardinal, 17-13. The win snapped a four-game losing streak against Stanford, and was revenge for last year's 65-21 loss to the then Andrew Luck-led Cardinal. It also broke a string of five straight losses to teams ranked in the top-10.
While they are now 1-0 in conference, the road to Pac-12 glory gets considerably tougher in the coming weeks, as the Huskies will face Oregon, USC, Arizona and Oregon State before closing out the campaign against California, Utah, Colorado and rival Washington State.
"I was talking to the team last night, the ultimate goal for tonight was to lay down in bed tonight and be 1-0 in Pac-12 play," Sarkisian said following the Stanford game.
"I just wanted to be 1-0 and start off on the right foot. And how we did it and the final score didn't matter to me, it was more of playing the way we were capable of playing, playing disciplined football."
The Huskies, who have been to just two bowl games since 2002 (both under Sarkisian), knew they needed to perform better on defense this year as they surrendered a school-record 467 points in 2011. Sarkisian, who is under contract through 2015, brought in former Tennessee and Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to revamp the unit, and despite the 41 points surrendered to LSU a few weeks ago, things appear to be on the upswing. Case in point, last year Stanford ran for a whopping 446 yards against UW, but generated just 65 yards on the ground and only 235 total this time around.
Wilcox, while obviously pleased with the way his defense performed against a Stanford offense which entered the clash averaging 30.3 points and 356.7 yards per game, hopes that the effort is viewed as the norm, and not the exception moving forward.
"Obviously, a win like this is great for our university. It's great for our fans. But hopefully it's not surprising," Wilcox said. "That's what we need to expect, to play well like this."
While the defense was clearly the story of the game, the Washington offense, led by running back Bishop Sankey's 144-yard, one-touchdown performance, did just enough to help the team earn the victory, taking it to a Stanford defense which came into the contest having allowed a total of 124 rushing yards in its first three games.
Quarterback Keith Price, who has thrown 40 career touchdown passes and needs just 14 more to become the school's all-time leader in that department, threw for 177 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Wide receiver Kasen Williams had the best game of his career, tallying 10 grabs for 129 yards and a score.
Knowing full well that one win does not a successful season make, Sarkisian hopes his players will use the momentum gained by the positive start to league play as it continues this murderous stretch of games.
"Our guys our going to enjoy it, as well they should. But I'm not into the, 'Now we don't have to win the next two or three because we won this won and everyone going to think that's great,'" Sarkisian said. "These guys, they are hungry. We'll get back on the horse and start preparing for Oregon and fixing things we need to fix about us and go to work."
Do the Huskies have what it takes to win the Pac-12's North Division? Not likely, but it won't be for a lack of effort. Of course, if they can somehow continue this string of upsets, then all bets are off.
Having logged back-to-back 7-6 campaigns, it's time for Sarkisian to up the ante and return the Huskies to their rightful place among the Pac-12's best. Time will tell if that's going to happen, but winning at Oregon next week will go a long way toward achieving that goal.