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University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: Are the Huskies as good as their 8-0 record indicates? We’ll soon find out.

Devin Culp (83) of the Washington Huskies, and former Gonzaga Prep standout, runs upfield after catching a pass against the Stanford Cardinal during the second quarter at Stanford Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Stanford, California.  (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

STANFORD, Calif. – The upcoming four-game gauntlet facing Washington’s football team down the final stretch doesn’t look quite as daunting as it once did, as various vulnerabilities and flaws of some of those teams have revealed themselves.

That’s a good thing for UW, because the Huskies don’t look nearly as daunting as they once did, either. Let’s face it , when it comes to vulnerabilities and flaws, these last two weeks by Washington have seen them come flooding to the forefront.

Oh, Kalen DeBoer said the same thing Saturday night after Washington’s “that easily could have been a disaster” 42-33 win over Stanford as he did a week earlier after their “phew, that was sure ugly” 15-7 escape against Arizona State.

Namely, that a win is a win, and when you have nothing but wins on your résumé after eight games, you’re doing something right.

That’s true, in the abstract. But after two straight … (pick your descriptor) nail-biters, head-scratchers, doubt-inducers … against seemingly overmatched opponents, it’s fair to wonder if the Huskies, the fifth-ranked team in the country, really are all they’re cracked up to be.

Or, more to the point, if they have the right stuff to get where they really want to go: first, the Pac-12 title game and, second, the College Football Playoff, for which the first rankings will be released Tuesday.

“The only thing I will say to the team on Sunday (about the pending CFP rankings) is what I say pretty much every week and it’s just, if you win, take care of business, things will happen and take care of itself,’’ DeBoer said. “So we really won’t get caught up in that because we know that we have to continue to win and the rest will all work out.”

But therein lies the rub as the Huskies face a November stress test with games against USC (which has two losses and gave up 49 in a win over Cal on Saturday), Utah (crushed by Oregon on Saturday – at home), Oregon State (maybe the toughest test of all in Corvallis) and Washington State (losers of four straight). Can they keep racking up the wins if they don’t step up considerably on both sides of the ball?

As was the case against ASU, the Huskies sabotaged every chance they had to blow the game open against Stanford. Last week, it was four turnovers and a lackluster offense. This time, it was two red-zone turnovers and a defense that kept getting gouged over the top on huge pass plays by the Cardinal.

Once again, there was some real doubt as the game hit the fourth quarter if the Huskies were going to avoid what would have been one of the most crushing losses in program history. They did just that, and DeBoer lavished the requisite praise for their grit and poise in pulling it out in the end.

But the Huskies also knew they need to elevate their game – as they did in beating Oregon.

“Even if we’re winning by 30, if we’re not playing to the standard that we feel is set in our locker room, we know we have to do better,’’ quarterback Michael Penix Jr. said. “Each and every game, we try to continue to take those steps to do better, even when we’re putting up 50 points and winning by 30 and 40 points. We’re still not satisfied. You know, we’re never satisfied. We’re always trying to continue to improve and get better each and every week. So that’s my mindset.”

Penix, who was clearly congested, pushed his chair back as he talked to the media after the game, saying he was under the weather and didn’t want to expose anyone. Despite not feeling well with what looked to be flu-like symptoms, Penix’s statistics were typically gaudy: 369 passing yards and four touchdowns, including one of 92 yards to Ja’Lynn Polk, the second-longest pass play in school history.

Yet the offense that drew raves in the first six games for its beautiful precision and innate ability to scheme receivers wide open, has not been nearly as sharp in the wake of their mammoth victory over Oregon.

That win was supposed to propel the Huskies to greater heights, but it has been nothing but a slog since. DeBoer noted that a series of injuries has disrupted the continuity on both sides of the ball and contributed to their struggles. Case in point was the departure of wide receiver Jalen McMillan in the first half as he aggravated a leg injury.

“Some of the rhythm and some of the things that you can see, it’s just some of the plays that we always make very easy have been harder the last couple of weeks.”

It didn’t help when the Huskies were marching to two apparent fourth-quarter touchdowns that would have eased the tension considerably, only to have Rome Odunze fumble at Stanford’s 9, and then Penix throw an interception in the end zone after Washington had driven to the 17. The Huskies simply couldn’t shake Stanford until the very end, when a Dillon Johnson TD run with 1:36 to play and a fourth-down stop sealed the wobbly win.

“It felt like we were in control as the game went on more and more, other than the scoreboard – which is obviously the most important thing,’’ DeBoer said.

That pesky scoreboard told a different story, although the paltry crowd of 24,380 didn’t reflect the frenzy of the moment. Cornerback Jabbar Muhammad said the Huskies’ lofty status means that previously struggling opponents are coming at them with every ounce of their focus, eyeing a victory that would make their season.

“We understand that we’re the No. 5 team in the country and we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,’’ Muhammad said. “They’re coming out, they got some fire under them. That’s pretty much what it is.”

As the make-or-break portion of their season arrives, the Huskies need to summon some of that same fire, or their less-than-best shot may cease to be good enough.