Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: Undefeated UW can’t afford to have another performance like Saturday’s win over Arizona State

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. warms up before taking on Arizona State at Husky Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Seattle.   (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The superstitious will be tempted to blame Washington’s nearly disastrous slog Saturday on their alternate uniform, as if the purple helmets radiated some sort of evil mojo.

But the truth is more mundane, and thus more troublesome: The Huskies’ struggles in their eventual 15-7 victory over Arizona State were the result of time-honored football deficiencies – poor decisions, poor execution, and, perhaps most glaringly, poor tackling. And you can’t say this very often under this Husky coaching regime, perhaps never before: The Huskies were also out-prepared by the Sun Devils, who figured out a way to slow down UW’s offense that no other team this year had managed – certainly not one with a 1-6 record.

Could it also have been the mother of all letdowns following last week’s exceedingly exhilarating victory over Oregon? Coach Kalen DeBoer didn’t think so, but it would only have been human nature.

Seven days later, in the same venue, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Facing an Arizona State team that had helped ruin Washington’s season last year with a crushing victory in the desert, the Sun Devils – again one of the Pac-12’s bottom feeders – wreaked temporary panic, if not havoc, once more.

It didn’t turn out to be the total disaster that simultaneously crossed about 70,000 minds as a distinct possibility when the Sun Devils led at intermission and were still led heading into the fourth quarter, with UW self-destructing with four turnovers. I, for one, was starting to research UW’s infamous 1985 loss to Oregon State when the Huskies were favored by 38 points – at the time the greatest upset ever from a point-spread standpoint.

Yet DeBoer felt the victory – buoyed by an 89-yard pick-six by Mishael Powell midway through the fourth quarter – will ultimately be viewed as a valuable character-builder.

“We can be down. But we can also just look at it and be understanding that we have got a gritty team that doesn’t give up and just is going to have a mindset of refusing to lose,” DeBoer said. “And that’s the difference between this year and last year. Last year, we didn’t get through it. We didn’t find a way to win this game a year ago.”

But there is a fine line between a valuable wake-up call and unmitigated catastrophe, and the Huskies straddled it for far too long on a rainy Saturday night. The large crowd was in a raucous, festive mood early – not Oregon loud, but deafening in a more ear-friendly way. That gradually gave way to stunned discomfort and then restless muttering until Powell’s interception return led to a cathartic and cacophonous roar.

Many great seasons require a team to survive a stinker or an unexpected scare, and the Huskies had both in one fell swoop at Husky Stadium. In such situations, UW has always counted on Michael Penix Jr. and the offense to bail them out, but Penix threw two interceptions – one on a tipped pass from the ASU 7-yard line to a wide-open Rome Odunze – to go with two Husky fumbles. Washington had just 13 rushing yards in the game, and seemed off-kilter all night. It was the first game in the DeBoer era without an offensive TD, and the first regular-season victory without one by the Huskies since 2001 (they also did it in the 2018 Pac-12 title game).

“There are a lot of teams that don’t find ways to get through that,” DeBoer said. “It was a struggle in different way, and just finding a way to get the dub is huge. … I’ve been doing this for a lot of years and there’s some dominant teams that get pushed to the limits in games that maybe you didn’t expect it to be what it was. I think finding ways to win in different ways, with our defense doing what they did, it only makes us stronger and only makes our team have that much more belief.”

That’s the glass-half-full point of view, but if it took that much to beat Arizona State, it makes you wonder how the Huskies will do when they hit the gauntlet of USC, Utah, Oregon State and WSU. Certainly, Penix’s Heisman bid, soaring after the Oregon win, hit a detour. In fact, as this one rolled along, it was easy to imagine all the Huskies’ dreams starting to slip away – first and foremost, their national playoff hopes which would have been close to shattered with a loss. Such a worst-case scenario was avoided, but it’s fair to wonder how far UW will drop from their No. 5 ranking – and how far the Huskies will fall in the national perception.

The struggle was absolutely stunning, and mostly inexplicable. Maybe the only explanation is that bad things seem to happen when Washington plays Arizona State, in Tempe or Seattle. It doesn’t matter if they have an interim coach, like last year, or no wins in conference, like this year. But it was possible to see their confidence and swagger increase, gradually and then meteorically, with every positive offensive possession or defensive stand.

The Huskies had gone 2-13 against ASU over their last 15 meetings, which should have been a foreshadowing that it wasn’t going to be the romp predicted by the oddsmakers, who made the Huskies’ 261/2-point favorites. ASU was coming off a bye week, which they obviously took full advantage of in formulating a way to stymie the high-powered Husky offense. And the Huskies let Sun Devil ball carriers slip out of tackles time and time again.

This was supposed to be a carefree revenge game. The Huskies kept waiting for Penix to save them, as he had done so many times before. In the end, it was the Husky defense that did so – and just barely, to avoid the first Husky loss in over a calendar year.

“I feel like definitely we had the right attitude coming into the game and we felt like we were ready to play a great game today,’’ Penix said “But, you know, everything isn’t perfect.”

At least this time imperfection didn’t result in the soul-crushing defeat that for much of the night loomed over Husky Stadium.