The Huskies billed the evening as a blackout, with dark uniforms and dark fan garb.
Wrong theme. It was a knockout evening. But no one would have believed Washington was the puncher.
Not against Stanford, the eighth-ranked team that beat USC around the same time Washington was obliterated 41-3 at Louisiana State. Not the Cardinal team that a year ago rolled UW 65-21 by rushing for a soul-crushing 446 yards.
“I’m not sure anyone outside (the team) believed we would win this game,” said Steve Sarkisian, a coach who felt the dread of a program on the edge of slipping back. “Maybe my wife. She may have given me a shot.”
But a team that nine months ago couldn’t have caught its breath, Thursday night captured the formidable Cardinal, a team with brawn, smarts and pedigree. In an astonishing 17-13 win, the Huskies held their own physically, and made Stanford look . . . well, dumb.
In was the Cardinal who had a dubious game plan, made foolish mistakes and failed under pressure. They did not score an offensive touchdown, had 65 yards rushing and 10 first downs. More significant, the Cardinal opened the door for Washington to become a force instead of a flop.
“They played smart football tonight,” said Sarkisian of his players, “playing the game the way it is meant to be played. We didn’t have holding (penalties), we didn’t have false starts, we didn’t line up wrong, we protected the ball for the most part, we covered our kicks, we punted the ball we tackled really well and, at the end, we had a chance to win.”
Trailing 13-10 with five minutes left, the chance was played on third-and-two at the Stanford 35-yard line, when beleaguered quarterback Keith Price, averse to another pounding from the Cardinal rush, threw yet another short pass into the flat. This time the completion found star receiver Kasen Williams covered only by a single defender, cornerback Terrence Brown. Williams broke his tackle, and saw open ground to the end zone.
But like everything else in this game, the play was inelegant. Un-pressured down the sideline, Williams let the ball squirt from his grip before recapturing it, then lost it again as a tackler grabbed him at the goal line. The play survived replay review, the Huskies had a touchdown and the lead and, after the revivified defense came through with yet another stop on a Desmond Trufant interception, CenturyLink Field witnessed its second preposterous outcome in four days.
We trust you’ve heard about the other one. This one wasn’t controversial, but equally as gratifying for the 55,941 on hand, thousands of whom stormed the field after the game to celebrate a team returned from the brink.
Facing five consecutive opponents ranked in the top 25, it was imperative to win this game for an injury-pickled outfit that wavered from mediocre to awful in its first three games. A loss may have made the season irretrievable. Instead, the Huskies beat a top-10 team for the first time in three years and left Stanford without an offensive touchdown for the first time in five years.
Most heartening for Huskies fans was the arrival of a defense that was efficient, organized and disciplined. This group is not talented or powerful enough to overwhelm a good opponent, but they can use their wits.
Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor, held to 79 yards in 21 carries with a long of seven, was impressed.
“They were running really well,” he said. “They adjusted. Last year they didn’t adjust too much, but this year they were on the ball. We made mistakes and they capitalized. They are a totally different team.”
The evening was vindication for Sarkisian’s decision to fire most of his previous defensive staff and bring in Justin Wilcox as the new coordinator. It took awhile for results to become apparent, but Thursday was a grand arrival.
Linebacker Thomas Tutogi led with 10 tackles and a sack, and freshman Shaq Thompson continued his game-to-game improvement as the Huskies’ premier disrupter. The unit forced quarterback Josh Nunes, a considerable step down from Andrew Luck, the job’s previous occupant, to check down to secondary options. Stanford was 5-for-18 on third downs and was stifled at key points in the first half that ended with a pair of field goals when the game could have escaped Washington.
The only break Stanford caught was defensive, when 6-foot-5 linebacker Trent Murphy made a splendid play on another Price pass into the flat, leaping high for an interception returned 40 yards untouched for a touchdown for a 13-3 lead with 2:51 left in the third period.
“It was a great play,” said Price. “I don’t know what else I could have done.”
Instead, he counterpunched. On the next possession, the Huskies had a fourth down and one at the 39-yard line when Sarkisian made the decision to go for it. Price saw the Stanford defenders were slow to assume their positions, barked orders for the offense to hustle up. He called for a quick snap and gave Bishop Sankey the ball. The right side provided a handy hole in the nine-in-the-box Stanford formation, and he was off, juking the Cardinal safety and going 61 yards to close to 13-10.
“I was hoping to catch them unaware,” said Price. “It worked out.”
For a change, the Huskies Thursday night caught numerous people unaware.