On paper, it’s perhaps the most daunting three-week stretch any team will face this season in college football:
— at No. 5 Stanford
— vs. No. 2 Oregon
— at No. 22 Arizona State
Those three games over the next 15 days will make or break this season for No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12), and perhaps define this Steve Sarkisian era at UW.
Let’s be honest: It’s not reasonable to expect the Huskies to win all three.
But many tossed reason aside when the Huskies thumped then-No. 19 Boise State 38-6 on Aug. 31 … when UW exorcised its road demons with an important win in Chicago … when Justin Wilcox’s defense shut down Rich Rodriguez’s offense in a monsoon.
And that’s OK — it’s OK to dream big right now. There’s a palpable buzz about this team, and that’s a good thing — a great thing. This fanbase has endured a lot of frustration for much of the past decade, and this 4-0 start deserves to be celebrated and deserves the recognition it’s getting nationally.
Will the adoration last? How real is the turnaround?
We’re about to find out.
On a micro level, this game and these matchups with Stanford don’t favor UW, in my humble opinion. If the Huskies have an advantage, it’s on the outside, both with their wide receivers and their defensive secondary.
Is that enough to overcome the apparent mismatches on the lines?
Yes, the UW defense was stout against Stanford last year, holding the No. 8 Cardinal to just 65 yards on the ground to set the tone in the Huskies’ 17-13 upset at CenturyLink Field.
That won’t matter a whole lot Saturday night at Stanford Stadium. Stanford was basically a one-dimensional offense that day with a below-average quarterback in Josh Nunes. The Cardinal are in much better shape with Kevin Hogan. Last year, UW had one primary goal going into the matchup: Stop the run. Saturday, the Huskies will have to, essentially, contend with four different offensive elements: Hogan’s arm, his legs, the Stanford run game and the much-improved Stanford receivers.
And that’s not even counting Stanford’s massive offensive line.
On the flip side, this game, to me, falls on Keith Price. This is the type of game when a fifth-year senior quarterback — in his third year as the starter, with healthy legs, a healthy offensive line and playmakers everywhere around him — must be at this best. If Price plays poorly, the Huskies have no chance. Shoot, if he plays well, the Huskies have no chance. He has to be better than good — he has to be great Saturday.
And Price has been close to great for much of the first month. He’s been efficient and error-free, which is what he’s asked to do. I believe he has to do more against a top-five team on the road. No, that doesn’t mean he has to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns and run for 100 more. That’s not reasonable.
But Price has to be Gary Payton in Game 4 of the 1996 NBA Finals. With the Sonics’ down 0-3 to Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Payton dominated with 21 points, 11 assists and two steals. Payton set up Shawn Kemp for easy scores the way Price needs to with Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams. Sure, Price needs to get the ball quickly to Jaydon Mickens and John Ross in space — for UW’s version of the fast break — but it’s the established veterans who need to be at their best, or at least very close to it, for UW to have a shot at another upset. UW’s new offensive tempo should help, but Price will have to precise and he’ll have to be fast, using his arms and his legs to keep Stanford’s disciplined defense honest.
Huskies insist they are focused on this day, this week, this game — this “process” that they keep speaking of. They insist they aren’t concerned with the national attention or with what’s coming next. That’s encouraging, certainly.
I was on the record last month calling Stanford overrated. Stanford played nine games last season decided by seven points or less, and went 7-2 in those. My thinking was that a top-five team with designs on a national championship has to be more dominant than that.
And Stanford has been just that the past two weeks, cruising a 29-0 halftime lead over a ranked Arizona State and bulldozing Washington State 55-17 last week, with Stanford’s Trent Murphy leaving pieces poor Connor Halliday in the CenturyLink end zone.
It’s not unreasonable to think the Huskies will be able to pull off the upset again. They are playing well, and so is Price. But good won’t be good enough on the road against a top-five team as dominant as Stanford has been.
The pick: Stanford 28, Washington 24.
Around the Pac-12:
—- Arizona State vs. Notre Dame (at Dallas): The Sun Devils are in the midst of their own brutal stretch, with a **cough, cough** victory over Wisconsin, the loss to Stanford and a victory over USC. Now they head to Cowboys Stadium. It seems like ASU regained its offensive momentum last week while putting the nail in the coffin of the Lane Kiffin era at USC. Let’s dance with the Devils again. The pick: Arizona State 35, Notre Dame 28.
—- Oregon at Colorado: It doesn’t sound like De’Anthony Thomas will play for Oregon, but that shouldn’t matter. Figure the Ducks rolling in Boulder and coming to Seattle next week undefeated. Will ESPN’s “College GameDay” be coming with them? The pick: Oregon 52, Colorado 10.
—- Washington State at California: If you’re a fan of interceptions and incompletions, set your DVR. The pick: Washington State 31, California 24.