The Huskies have become a team coming of age before our very eyes, winning their last two games by a combined 80 points, including Friday’s 45-10 victory over Washington State at Husky Stadium.
The Huskies didn’t yield to their mistakes like they did against California, or look overwhelmed like they did against Stanford, or let up like they did against Arizona State.
They didn’t succumb to youthful indiscretion or get buried by maddening inconsistency, as they have so often.
Rather than take their customary two step forwards and two steps back, the Huskies sprinted dead ahead — up and over and through the Washington State Cougars en route to a stunning 45-10 Apple Cup rout on Friday
This is a team coming of age before our very eyes, having won their final two games by a combined 80 points. Promise is giving way to performance, in a fashion that doesn’t just bode well for Washington’s future; the bounties of embodying all the hard lessons learned are being reaped in the present tense.
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And suddenly, the Huskies’ present includes a bowl game after wrapping up their sixth win and eliminating the distasteful prospect of postseason play with a losing record.
But the Huskies’ more immediate prize for their newfound maturity? The freedom to act like jubilant little kids as they hooted, hollered and romped around Husky Stadium, hoisting the Apple Cup trophy.
As statements go, this one was loud and clear.
Seven turnovers caused by the defense tend to get any message across. The lesson that resonated most powerfully on a clear, crisp afternoon just made for college football was that the team has learned how to finish.
Just two weeks ago, in Tempe, the Huskies reached halftime with the same 17-3 lead, only to wilt in the second half as the Sun Devils roared back for a 27-17 win. This time, the Huskies redoubled their dominance in the second half, outscoring the Cougars 28-7.
“When we lost that Arizona State game, it taught us to finish,’’ UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. “That’s the missing link we had. From now on, it’s all forward. We can’t take a step back.”
The Huskies came into the game at a high emotional pitch — “all in,’’ in the words of Coach Chris Petersen. They were buoyed by pep talks from a bevy of Husky greats from the past, motivated by the prospect of bowl eligibility, and fueled naturally by all that a rivalry game entails.
“Our biggest thing today was to impose our will and show this is our state,’’ said senior Cory Littleton.
A lofty goal, but rather than get entangled in the magnitude of it all, the Huskies stayed poised. And their relentless defense, which featured a pass rush that increased in ferocity as the game progressed, clearly rattled WSU’s freshman quarterback, Peyton Bender. He threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in the second half.
“He was a little overwhelmed from everything that was happening,” senior defensive back Brian Clay said. “He forced some throws, and we capitalized on his mistakes.”
The Huskies’ progress was evident on numerous fronts. After Marcellus Pippins’ 66-yard interception return against Jake Browning and subsequent Cougars TD gave WSU a whiff of hope in the third quarter, the Huskies responded perfectly: An 11-play, 84-yard touchdown drive with Myles Gaskin doing the dirty work. From that point on, Washington was relentless in burying the Cougars.
“Our team is definitely growing,’’ Clay said. “Our offense is definitely finding their identity. Myles is helping us out a lot, and Jake is coming along. And our defense, I believe we’re unstoppable right now.”
Clay somehow managed to even sound wistful about the missed opportunities in a game in which the Huskies recovered five fumbles, intercepted two passes, and stymied one of the best passing offenses in the country (albeit without Heisman candidate QB Luke Falk).
“Honestly, as a defense, we knew this was our potential,” Clay said. “And the thing is, this wasn’t even our best potential. I think we can get more turnovers than that.”
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to look at Washington’s offense, with true freshmen Browning and Gaskin at its heart, and not think about what may lie ahead.
Gaskin motored for 138 yards, his seventh game over 100 yards. Browning turned in an assured performance in which his reaction to the pick — plowing ahead with no repercussions — might have been the most impressive part.
“If Jake makes a mistake, he’s not going to go in the tank,” Petersen said. “It’s not even a consideration.’’
And unlike against Arizona State, the Huskies didn’t go in the tank, either. On this day, they showed that they can overcome prosperity as well as adversity. And do it on their own accord, which to Petersen was the No. 1 sign that his team is incorporating the proper mindset.
He and his coaching staff didn’t have to rant and rave in the locker room at halftime with reminders about the ASU game, despite the identical score.
“I think the nice thing was, that wasn’t even talked about,” Petersen said. “I looked at the score and thought the same thing. The thing that’s starting to come nice here, I try to tell these guys, I do my talking early in week, and the closer we get to end of week, the less talking I do.
“Finally the players are starting to take that locker room over in the right way. I didn’t say a thing at halftime. They said it all.”
And the message was one that resonates loudly and positively for the future, and now the present, of Husky football.