Huskies survive gauntlet, but they're no lock to take off in second half
Related Column: Huskies' comeback bid is too little, too late against USC
Note: This piece began as a first-edition column, which I updated after the Washington-USC game ended and turned into the column linked above. I'm tweaking it and posting it here because it provides my take on where the 3-3 Huskies go from here.
The worst part is over, at least.
If there's any consolation for the spankings and hard lessons the Washington football team has received during the first half of this season, it's that the frontloaded schedule gets lighter over the final six weeks. You can convince yourself that this will soothe your swollen team. You can rationalize that improvement mixed with manageable competition will transform the Huskies' performance from troubling to satisfactory. You can overlook the three losses to top-11 foes by a combined score of 117-38, focus mostly on the victory over then-No. 8 Stanford and foresee a future of spirals and chest bumps if you'd like.
Don't be surprised, though, when the actual journey proves much more arduous.
"From the looks of it, it's not getting any easier," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.
It's not just that the Huskies squandered several opportunities to make a comeback in a 24-14 loss to Southern California on Saturday at CenturyLink Field, a week after Oregon hung a 52-21 score on Washington. It's not just that LSU exposed the Huskies during a 41-3 blowout in September. When you look at the entire first half of the season, the Huskies (3-3) have shown few signs that they're capable of separating from even marginal opponents and stringing together several weeks of impressive play.
Though No. 10 Oregon State is the only ranked team left on the schedule, the Huskies aren't primed to be anything more than a week-to-week mystery until they prove to be consistently good at something. They're currently a team without a dependable strength. Their weaknesses aren't as crippling as they've been in the past, but outside of intangibles such as work ethic and an earnest desire to be a solid football team, Washington is as unreliable as any bowl contender in college football.
The USC game was a microcosm of the season thus far. The Huskies fell behind 24-7 by halftime. They couldn't stop Silas Redd and the Trojans' run game. Quarterback Keith Price completed 10 of 13 passes early, but his efficiency produced only 58 yards in the first half, and 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 was the second straight week that a special teams gaffe haunted Washington.
It felt like it would be another lackluster showing against an elite team. You've seen that movie so many times that you can recite every actor's lines. But this game didn't wind up following that familiar script.
In the second half, the Huskies performed more like the team we thought they could be before the injuries and underachieving began. Price found his rhythm and explosive playmaking. He completed 16 straight passes at one point. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught long passes, including a 29-yard touchdown. The defense turned into a brick wall.
The Huskies showed a kind of resolve that has been absent in past losses to elite teams. Now, it should be said that USC, which played a very conservative game after building that 24-7 lead, is only meeting the minimum requirements of elite so far this season. The Trojans are worthy of their No. 11 ranking, but they don't have the depth, and they're not playing with the consistency to impress the way that Alabama and Oregon have impressed. Still, USC may very well develop into dominant team. The Trojans got better as the season progressed a year ago. And it's significant that the Huskies turned a rout into a competition after halftime.
It could've been even better than that, though. With the Huskies three yards from the end zone early in the fourth quarter, Price lost a fumble. A touchdown could'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.
Sometimes, it's hard to know what to make of the Huskies. They survived the toughest part of their season, and their 3-3 record is better than the 2-4 prediction that many had. But this team is hardly playing from ahead this season.
The Pac-12 is tougher than predicted. For the most part, the Huskies have a bunch of 50/50 games the rest of the season. Their easiest game is against lowly Colorado, but that game is on the road in November, where wintry conditions might play a factor. The Huskies have played well at home - they're 3-1 and have yet to play a stinker -- but they have just two home games remaining.
Undoubtedly, the Huskies learned from playing four ranked teams in their first six games. But that doesn't mean they're ready to chomp on the leftovers now that they've gotten past the hard part.
The worst is over, but the struggles might endure.
They'll have to grind their way to bowl eligibility. Sometimes, the offense might scrounge up enough points. Sometimes, as it did against Stanford and in the second half against USC, the defense might lead the way. Sometimes, winning might have to defy logic. It's just one of those nothing-comes-easy seasons.
Get used to it. The remaining competition won't exploit the Huskies as much, but the grind will continue.
The Huskies' remaining schedule, with home games in bold
Oct. 20 at Arizona, 7 p.m.
Oct. 27 Oregon State, time TBA
Nov. 2 at California, 6 p.m.
Nov. 10 Utah, time TBA
Nov. 17 at Colorado, time TBA
Nov. 23 Apple Cup at Washington State, 12:30 p.m.