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Originally published Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 8:27 PM

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UW's lack of identity troubling, even with easier schedule ahead

The Huskies are finished with the most difficult part of their season, but unless they start finding a consistent strength, the rest of the way could be just as rocky as the start.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The Washington football team sure picked an odd way to be competitive Saturday. It tiptoed to the brink of shame before deciding to fight.

The Huskies fell behind USC 24-7 at halftime before choosing to pluck their dignity out of a rout. They specialize in making life difficult, but, geez, this was an exorbitant, self-inflicted toil, even for them. It wasn't challenging enough to face the No. 11 team in the nation, but before the Huskies could muster any resistance, they had to watch USC take a 17-point lead.

Then, as the Trojans played conservative and trusted their defense, Washington played one of its best halves of the season to make the game interesting. But a comeback bid ended with quarterback Keith Price, who found his passing touch in the second half before committing three turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Score: USC 24, Washington 14.

Conclusion: Huh?

Sometimes, it's hard to know what to make of the Huskies. They're as stable as a bridge made of Popsicle sticks. Their uneven performance before 66,202 at CenturyLink Field was indicative of why the 3-3 Huskies are one of the most unreliable bowl contenders in college football.

They're talented enough to play with most teams, but they still suffered blowout losses to Oregon and LSU. Just when you wanted to consider them a lost cause, they beat Stanford. And then they do everything wrong for a half against USC, only to show what's right about them in the second half. But they don't complete the comeback because, well, they wouldn't be mysterious then, would they?

Actually, they're just young and erratic.

What do you make of a team that goes from overmatched to overzealous in the span of 60 minutes?

"I thought our guys, in the second half, tried better, competed harder," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.

And why didn't they do that at the start of the game?

If Sarkisian had an answer, he would've fixed the problem by now.

"We just need to find a way to start our engine and play at a high level from the opening kickoff," he said.

If you know a good mechanic, call Sark ASAP.

More than that, though, the coach needs to help the Huskies handle these big stages better. Too often, the Huskies play like a team that is unsure if it can compete against the nation's elite. It's odd because Sarkisian's teams have pulled off some great upsets during his four years. But against the best of the best, they're still too susceptible to blowouts or long periods of hesitant play.

"We just have to believe in each other, believe in our game plan and go out there and execute to the best of our abilities and do what we have to do," sophomore wide receiver DiAndre Campbell said.

While falling behind 24-7, the Huskies couldn't stop Silas Redd and the Trojans' run game. Price completed 10 of 13 passes early, but he couldn't get the ball downfield to energize an offense that has been lacking the big play. And then the Huskies' special teams, which have held their own for most of the season, allowed USC's Anthony Brown to block a punt and return it for a touchdown.

It felt like it would be another lackluster showing against an elite team. But after halftime, as USC went into chill mode, the Huskies performed more like the squad we thought they could be before the injuries and underachieving began.

Price, who had a stretch of 16 straight completions, found his rhythm and explosive playmaking. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who had five receptions for 83 yards, started getting open downfield. He scored the only touchdown of the second half on a 29-yard reception in the third quarter. The defense turned into a brick wall and shut out the suddenly conservative Trojan offense over the final 42 minutes of the game.

The Huskies showed a kind of resolve that has been absent in past losses to elite teams. But they couldn't finish.

With the Huskies three yards from the end zone early in the fourth quarter, Price lost a fumble. A touchdown would've trimmed the deficit to 24-21. With 4:13 remaining, USC safety Josh Shaw intercepted a tipped pass from Price. And the quarterback fumbled again — Price's fourth turnover of the game — to end a drive with two minutes remaining.

Washington had so many opportunities to get in position to pull off a remarkable comeback, but the team's identity of being an inconsistent mystery sprouted every time.

"I just can't turn the ball over," Price said, eyes red, after the game. "I just can't. The ball's just not bouncing our way. It's just not. The results just aren't the results we want."

The Huskies did survive the toughest part of their schedule with a 3-3 record and an upset of then-No. 8 Stanford. It's better than the 2-4 prediction that many had. But this team is hardly playing from ahead this season. The Huskies are currently a team without a dependable strength. Their weaknesses aren't as crippling as they've been in the past, but they aren't stellar at anything.

Except persistence, perhaps.

In lieu of consistency, the Huskies will have to rely on fight. But next time, they should start punching earlier.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

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