Well, if the Huskies wanted to wedge their way into the national conversation, they’ve succeeded. And I’m not faking.
First, they played a compelling, controversial game Saturday, outperforming No. 5 Stanford in many aspects but falling by three after a disputed call on their final drive.
Most people with little previous exposure to Washington no doubt made a mental note that the Huskies were a fun team with a relentless running back and a dynamic quarterback — a squad that could make some noise if it cleaned up its penalties and special teams.
Then, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian became embroiled in a war of words with Stanford’s David Shaw (who fired most of the shots) in a rare burst of dueling candor. The sound bytes careened around the Internet, fueling a spirited debate about the efficacy of speaking your mind, the ethics of flopping as an antidote to up-tempo offenses, and just how officials are supposed to stop teams from faking injuries.
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“It’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall,’’ Rogers Redding, the NCAA’s coordinator of football officials, told me by phone Wednesday. “It’s hard to do anything about it. Officials always have to assume if a player claims he is injured, he is, in fact, injured. They can’t be in the business of trying to guess.”
Looming Saturday is a showdown with the up-tempoest of them all, No. 2 Oregon, a team that has mopped the floor with the Huskies for nine years in a row. The Ducks have won those games by margins of 34, 21, 20, 34, 25, 31, 17, 37 and 24 points, making this game the ultimate yardstick of just how far the Huskies have progressed this season.
Oh, did I mention that ESPN has decided to plop its “GameDay” set onto the UW campus for the first time? In college football, that’s about as big-time as it gets, symbolic confirmation that this particular game, on this particular day, is the hottest thing going.
One more element to add some color and intrigue, not to mention a rare confluence of both the Huskies’ archrivals in one locale: The Washington State University flags that have flown at the GameDay locale for nearly 10 years. Here’s hoping that Cougars, Huskies and Ducks all display some restraint and common sense in the inevitable turf war for maximum network visibility.
It’s a combustible mix that Sarkisian realizes provides a golden opportunity for his club to truly put themselves on the college-football map.
“It’s awesome we’re climbing our way back into relevancy,’’ he said.
But Sarkisian also realizes that all the trappings and tumult, while convenient for getting the Huskies’ name out there, mean nothing without an victory. Based on recent series history, and the evidence of another Oregon powerhouse, that would take a small miracle. But that’s exactly what the Huskies are striving for.
“We feel we have the opportunity to elevate ourselves to one of the elite teams in the country,’’ Sarkisian said after practice Wednesday. “We went toe-to-toe with a top-five team last week on the road, and now here comes the No. 2 team, who’s gone to consecutive BCS bowls.
“I think it (a win) would kind of cement where we are in the world of college football, and how far we’ve come, and that those real goals of winning national championships are there for us.”
Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins insisted the Huskies won’t get caught up in the mystique of playing mighty Oregon, which has scored a minimum of 55 points in its five victories this season, and won them by an average of 47.
“Honestly, it’s a faceless opponent …’’ Seferian-Jenkins said. “I think a lot of people, rightfully so, are trying to build up the game with a lot of hype, and No. 2 Oregon comes here, brand-new stadium, blackout. When it comes down to it, it’s just us going out and playing some football.”
But quarterback Keith Price, who warranted high praise from Shaw at the back end of his Tuesday anti-Sark tirade, recognizes the potential payoff if the Huskies pull off the victory.
“Oh, man, it would be huge,’’ Price said. “We haven’t beaten them in what, nine straight years? The team, we haven’t really talked anything about it. We understand the task at hand.”
The task at hand, once you strip away the sound and fury of this week, will be a monumental one for the Huskies, particularly with Price nursing a sore thumb.
It will require optimal performances from key players, and elimination of the deadly mistakes from last Saturday — and even then it might not be enough against a Ducks team overflowing with high-impact talent.
In other words, navigating a Huskies victory looks like the equivalent of trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. It’s the Ducks, not a faceless opponent. But it’s also a football game, not a metaphor. For Washington, relevancy is merely a miracle away.
|Sark has beaten the best|
|Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has won eight games in five years against Top 25 opponents.|
|2013||vs. No. 19 Boise State, 38-6|
|2012||vs. No. 8 Stanford, 17-13|
|2012||vs. No. 7 Oregon State, 20-17|
|2010||@ No. 18 USC, 32-21|
|2010||vs. No. 24 Oregon State, 35-34 (2 OT)|
|2010||vs. No. 18 Nebraska, 19-7|
|2009||vs. No. 3 USC, 16-13|
|2009||vs. No. 19 California, 42-10|
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry