The Washington Huskies’ “hype train” has been a slow, gradual chug out of the station. After Week 5, that train will either come to a halt or barrel full steam ahead down the Pac-12 track.
No. 10 Washington had the good fortune of opening with three overmatched opponents in non-conference play, bullying Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State by a combined 118 points. The Huskies’ Week 4 trip to Arizona brought their first real test of the season, as an underrated Wildcat bunch took the Dawgs to overtime, but the breakout performance of running back Lavon Coleman — whose 181 yards and fourth-quarter touchdown could not have been more timely — staved off a potentially derailing loss to kick off the conference schedule.
“It’s hard to know where this team is,” head coach Chris Petersen said, a tacit acknowledgment of the slow build thus far. “It’s always a work in progress. Every week’s a struggle. Every week you have new challenges.”
The biggest challenge yet — perhaps all season — awaits at the Huskies’ home station.
No. 10 Stanford has been the driving engine of the Conference of Champions for much of the last half-decade, winning three league titles in the last four seasons. The Cardinal have done so with a style emulated at Washington — though Petersen flourished with it before Stanford’s David Shaw.
Petersen began with a solid foundation at Boise State. Combining an aggressive approach on defense with consistent rushing and a dash of razzle-dazzle on offense, he built a nationally celebrated brand.
Boise State’s meteoric rise under Petersen begat the lofty expectations awaiting Washington in the coach’s third season in Seattle.
He certainly has the Huskies moving in the right direction, as their 4-0 start indicates. It’s the best opening four weeks any Washington team has had since 2001 — one season after the program reached its most recent Rose Bowl Game.
Returning to Pasadena may well hinge on the Dawgs getting to 5-0 Friday. No Washington team has started a campaign 5-0 since 1992, a season that concluded in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All.
Washington hasn’t played a game of this magnitude in some time. For Stanford, it’s not exactly old hat, but it’s nothing new.
As reigning titleholders, the Cardinal see opponents’ best shots week after week. Last Saturday at UCLA was no exception, with the Bruins dragging the Cardinal into what star running back Christian McCaffrey called “a dogfight.”
That dogfight revealed the mettle of a tested bunch.
“We have a lot of guys on our team that have played in big games: Pac-12 Championship Games, Rose Bowl Games,” Shaw said. “Our guys have some experience, they’ve learned to lean on each other, they trust our process and the coaches put faith in the guys on the field.”
Whether with Petersen or Steve Sarkisian at the helm, Washington’s had a knack for playing Shaw’s Stanford teams close. The 2012 Huskies beat the Cardinal in Seattle, the only blemish on their Pac-12 title-winning slate. Losses in 2013 and 2014 came by a 10 points.
This appears to unquestionably be the best all-around Washington team in that time, and the Huskies enjoy a distinct advantage in at least one position. Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning took advantage of the Huskies’ gentle September schedule by decimating his first three opponents for 12 touchdowns and 740 yards.
At times against Arizona, he continued at the same torrid pace — and a pair of touchdowns bear that out. However, he also sailed a few passes on clear scoring opportunities in the second half. Nevertheless, his experience and high ceiling give Washington an edge over Stanford, which continues to feel out its offensive identity with newbie Ryan Burns behind center.
“There just seems to be a lot less uncertainty, and I think he’s throwing the ball better overall,” Petersen said, comparing Browning’s Year Two to his debut campaign. “He’s on the right track.”
That track could point straight to New York City if he finds ways to put points up on a stout Stanford defense. Browning missed Washington’s date with Stanford a season ago, so Friday marks his first time against the Pac-12’s defensive benchmark. Some good fortune for him: The Cardinal are without their starting cornerbacks, Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, both sidelined with injuries.
“The thing with Washington’s offense is the speed,” Shaw said, citing one of the targets who could give a depleted Cardinal secondary fits: John Ross.
Shaw called Ross, who doubles as a kick returner, “one of the fastest guys in college football.”
If he and his Washington teammates can break away from the Cardinal just enough times, the hype train will become a runaway locomotive.