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Commentary: It’s time the Huskies get the respect — and the ranking — they’ve earned

Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze (#1) celebrates his touchdown catch as the No. 5 Huskies face the No. 11 Oregon State Beavers in a college football game at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Oregon on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.  (Tribune News Service)
Matt Calkins Seattle Times

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The “how” is irrelevant at this point. All that matters is the “what.”

One can squawk that the Huskies refuse to ever take the comfortable victory — that they haven’t had a game sealed before the final minutes since Sept. 23.

One can play the “eye test” card, or point out a series of fortunate events, or zero in on flaws that don’t seem to be fading.

But this game is about winning — not winning by a lot. And the totality of the Huskies’ wins are as impressive as anybody in the country.

About time the powers that be take notice.

Earlier this past week, the College Football Playoff Committee ranked Florida State (No. 4) ahead of Washington (No. 5) despite the Dawgs having wins over three CFP Top-25 teams to the Seminoles’ one. The public seemed equally convinced of UW’s fragility, as Washington (11-0, 8-0 in the Pac-12) went from sportsbook favorite to sportsbook underdog in the lead-up to Saturday’s game vs. Oregon State (8-3, 5-3).

This had everything to do with the “how.” UW hadn’t beaten anyone by more than 10 over the previous six games and nearly fell to lowly Arizona State and Stanford. That shouldn’t matter anymore. Not after Saturday’s 22-20 win over the 10th-ranked Beavers.

How much more does this team have to prove?

Washington coach Kalen DeBoer doesn’t get riled up during interviews too often. But it was clear Saturday that something — most likely the CFP’s ranking — irked him in terms of his team’s reputation.

Asked about people finding reasons to doubt the Huskies’ prowess despite having now beaten four Top-25 teams (along with USC, which was ranked when they played), DeBoer got animated.

“We just played three back-to-back teams that were ranked at the time — two of them on the road, and with different styles. … I’m sure there is someone who’s got a schedule as tough as ours here in the back half, but we’re just playing ball against some really good opponents and finding a way to get it done.” DeBoer said. “You can get nitpicky on ‘this isn’t quite good enough’ or ‘that’s not quite good enough,’ but let’s talk about our strengths. Let’s talk about what we do well. And I think there’s a lot of things that we do well.”

The Huskies’ most-touted strength is an offense that came into Saturday fifth in the nation in points per game and sixth in the country in yards. The engine of that machine is Heisman-hopeful quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who is as clutch as he is commanding.

A series of dropped, rain-soaked footballs sullied a stat line that showed him finishing 13 of 28 for 162 yards and two touchdowns. But the two passes that found Rome Odunze in the end zone? The game-sealing, 19-yarder to Rome on third-and-3 with under two minutes left? These are the reasons Penix might end up in New York next month.

This is hardly a case of a QB carrying a team, though. As much criticism as the Huskies’ defense receives, it regularly delivers in the most high-leverage moments.

In the three-point win vs. Oregon, it was stopping the Ducks on fourth-and-three three times. In the eight-point win vs. Arizona State, it was cornerback Mishael Powell returning an interception to the end zone. In the seven-point win over Utah, it was the Dawgs shutting the Utes out in the second half. And Saturday, it was forcing the Beavers — who dominated the running game all evening — to turn over the ball on downs near midfield on their final possession.

That’s the thing about these Huskies: They aren’t gifted these narrow wins — they take them. Again and again and again.

Seriously, who has been more successful? Is it Georgia, who has wins over three CFP Top-25 teams? Is it Ohio State, which has two? Michigan or Florida State with one apiece?

The SEC, Big Ten and ACC might have earned tiebreaking rights over the Pac-12 with their postseason success over the past 20 years. But the Huskies have taken down four schools the CFP committee says are among the country’s best.

After the game, Washington cornerback Jabbar Muhammad — who had two interceptions — didn’t express too much concern about how outsiders view his team.

“We don’t really buy into that. Whatever they say is whatever they say,” Muhammad said.

That’s the healthiest way to view it — but what “they” have been saying is wrong. Time to change the narrative — and that ranking, too.