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It’s Playoff Time: UW Survives and Advances

It’s not even October, but like baseball Washington Football fans are already looking ahead to what the NCAA Playoffs could potentially hold. Playoffs? Playoffs? Are you insane?

In my best Jim Mora, Sr. voice inside my head, I’m ticking off the reasons why Husky fans shouldn’t be thinking such pie-in-the-sky thoughts after UW’s thrilling, stomach-churning, acid-inducing, Tums-digesting 35-28 overtime win over Arizona in Tucson Saturday night. 

It was never going to be easy, was it? 

They allowed Arizona’s offense to run for 308 yards. They gave up 475 yards of total offense. Death Row looked more like Cannery Row, providing a Welcome to the Pac-12 party for the Wildcats’ Brandon Dawkins, who ran for 176 yards and threw for 167. 

The Huskies couldn’t get out of their own way or give themselves a break. Cameron Van Winkle, the Lou Groza Watch List Cameron Van Winkle, the one ranked number-one all-time in UW history for field goal percentage, missed two field goals. 

Five of Washington’s drives that finished in Arizona territory resulted in scores. The others ended up in no points, an ill-advised interception by Jake Browning, and a turnover on downs after Jonathan Smith decided a slow-developing counter run on 4th and 1 was the call to make, the same call that couldn’t deliver earlier in the game on third down. 

Washington had 12 penalties all season before Saturday night: they had eight against Arizona. Half of them were significant, including two pass interference calls against Darren Gardenhire - one of which wasn’t a pass interference penalty. 

“We probably need a month to clean up all these things that we need to improve on,” Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen said afterward, also noting they, in actuality, have five days to clean up all the things they need to improve on before No. 7 Stanford comes to town. 

But for all the miscues, misdeeds and yellow flags, the Huskies never sent up the white flag. While fans were scurrying to bathrooms and trying to find cover under couches, unable to endure the final quarter of torture, Washington hung tough, stayed together, and pulled out the guttiest of wins. 

To coin a phrase folks in Tucson would appreciate, they ‘Bear’d Down’. 

They found a welcome source of instant offense in junior Lavon Coleman. Coleman, whose season-high in 2015 was 44 yards, ripped off 181 precious chunks against Arizona, including a 56-yard scamper to put the Huskies ahead in the fourth quarter and a 24-yard burst down the UW sideline in overtime to set-up what would be the game-winning score. 

“The performance all around was really - you appreciate everybody working hard,” Coleman said. “You appreciate everybody not giving up. You appreciate everybody digging down when it needs to be done.” 

In the away locker room after the game was over, Jake Browning was thinking aloud. He was saying what a lot of people around the program will likely echo in the days to come: This is a game that ends up in the ‘L’ column last season. 

“I just kept thinking about how many of those did we lose last year were we were just so close and finally getting over that hump of winning that close game. For me, personally, that was big time being able to go in and, especially in overtime, and execute and stuff like that.”

And Browning is right. Washington had Arizona State dead to rights in the first half of their game last year, only to capitulate and give up 24 unanswered. It was crap second quarters against California, Oregon and Utah - all at home - that crushed any hope of Washington showing they were ready to get over the hump of winning close games against quality league opponents. 

Folks will point Saturday night to a depleted Arizona team, a team licking its wounds before and during the game. But Rich Rodriguez has turned Arizona Stadium into a bit of a fortress, and going to Tucson is never an easy bit of business. 

Washington knows this. They hadn’t won there since 2006. And since Rodriguez took over at Arizona in 2012, the Wildcats are 22-7 at home and 5-2 over top-20 teams. 

On top of that, Rodriguez has made a habit of beating at least one top-10 team per season. The Huskies just made sure it wasn’t them. 

And that’s ultimately all that matters. To turn a March Madness saying into one relevant in September, it’s all about surviving and advancing.

If the Football Playoffs are the end goal - and it should always be the end goal for a top Power-5 team - it’s about winning, even winning ugly. 

Mistakes will get cleaned up. Skill will continue to get developed. But for all the hand-wringing at the time, there’s only one indisputable fact - you can’t win it all if you don’t win that game. 

Losing against a top-5 team on the road in a close contest won’t necessarily ruin a season, but losing to a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 team in a game where you were favored by double-digits is a dream killer. 

Washington fans can now breathe a heavy sigh of relief and know that their team is only one of four unbeaten Pac-12 teams that remain. 

UW joins Stanford, Arizona State and Utah as the last ones standing. And it’s not even October. Mike Bellotti wasn’t even half-right when he called the Pac-12 the ‘Cannibal Conference’. 

And let’s be completely honest: NCAA Football at the highest level is really, really tough. Every week a top-10 team’s hopes for playoff immortality gets flushed down the toilet. 

Last week it was Florida State. This week it was Michigan State. You can be certain someone else is going to be picked off their perch next week. Could it be Washington’s turn to circle the drain?

A win Saturday means one more week to hang around. One more week to chase dreams. One more week to put someone else’s ambition on ice. 

That’s life in the top-10, and it ain’t easy. Up next, a team that’s standing under the glare of the same spotlight - the Stanford Cardinal. 

The first time Husky Stadium hosted two top-10 teams was in 1962. It ended up in a 7-7 tie with then-No. 7 Purdue. 

Husky Stadium had to wait 20 years to host another top-10 battle royale, as No. 10 Washington beat No. 9 UCLA 10-7. 

Fifteen more years would go by before Husky Stadium saw a game between top-10s. Number seven Nebraska came to Seattle and upended then-No. 2 UW 27-14. 

That’s it. Washington hasn’t even been ranked in the top-10 for 15 years, so maybe that’s why all of this feels quite foreign, perhaps even unexpected. 

But they now occupy a space where two top-10 teams are going to be playing a game on a short week, a week that also includes the beginning of a new quarter for Washington’s student-athletes.

“We planned for about three weeks for this short week,” Petersen said. “This is really hard, playing this game on a Friday against this really good team. School starting. We’ve had to do a bunch of different things, move practice times around. We’ve worked out for three weeks and we think we have a good plan to give us a chance to compete on a short a week.”

Perhaps a short week is just what Washington needs to eliminate as much of the outside noise as they can. It was clear the noise generated by the ‘Zona Zoo got to the UW offense at times, and Stanford is going to hit the Huskies will all they’ve got. 

What will Washington do? How will they respond? 

If they respond as they did in the desert when the adversity was piling up higher than Rainier, they’ll stay together, fight like Dawgs, and persevere.

They will survive and advance. 

When you’re climbing toward the top and the summit is the goal, that’s all you can do. Top Stories