Halfway through their magical mystery tour of a football season, one that has found tail-kicking defeats transformed into fist-pumping victories and unforgettable victories converted into equally unforgettable defeats, this much can be said of the Washington Huskies:
They are nothing if not exciting.
Among the one-word descriptions a head coach wants applied to his team, “exciting” is not at the top of the list. “Exciting” does not even rate in the top 10. A coach would rather his players be lauded for their togetherness, toughness, discipline, courage, stamina, resourcefulness, brains, tenacity, loyalty and, of course, excellence.
Washington, on occasion, has personified all of these virtues. Other times – the first 57 minutes of the Arizona game Saturday night come to mind – the Huskies have been soft, a step or two slow, uncertain to the point of timid.
Which is to say, with a 3-3 record, they’re not excellent. But they are an excellent adventure, capable of scoring two late touchdowns covering 62 yards in 18 seconds, as they did against the Wildcats in Husky Stadium – a week after nine snaps within a yard of the Notre Dame end zone failed to produce a single touchdown.
Exasperating one game, exhilarating the next, and that other ex-word keeps returning to the discussion.
And though Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian would rather be on the right side of a 10-9 plod-a-thon than the wrong side of a 39-38 thriller, a football team that consistently generates excitement is a football team that will gain the attention of bowl-game officials.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Come December, the best way to score an invitation to a bowl game is to finish with at least seven victories. Eight works better, and nine works better yet.
But if the Huskies finish at 6-6 – the minimum standard of competence required to go bowling – they’ll likely provide more compelling theatre in the postseason than a typical 7-5 team.
The foremost objective of bowl-game administrators is to sell tickets. Another objective is to cultivate a solid TV audience. Given its potential to score touchdowns in a hurry – and, yes, to be scored upon in a hurry – Washington figures to both sell bowl-game tickets and draw bowl-game TV viewers.
A wonderfully goofy sequence of events enabled the Huskies to beat Arizona on Saturday. Jake Locker’s 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kavario Middleton elevated the seemingly imminent defeat into the realm of respectable, trimming the Wildcats’ lead to 33-28 with 2:55 remaining. And when linebacker Mason Foster picked off a pass that deflected off the foot of receiver Delashaun Dean, returning the interception for a 37-yard touchdown, the Huskies did more than win a game they had no business winning.
They stayed alive for a bowl bid. With a midway mark of 2-4, and road games awaiting at Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State, notions of competing for a bowl game would have been foolish. Now, at 3-3, the chance hovers between a possibility and a probability.
“We always felt like we were alive for a bowl game anyway,” Foster said after his team’s 36-33 victory against Arizona. “We were going to play our hardest.”
Such dedication is admirable, but bowl dreams with a 2-4 record? When you need to finish 6-6 just to be included in the conversation?
Nope. Wasn’t gonna happen.
But in the wake of the Miracle of the Heavenly Placed Foot, Washington has reason to believe its season will be extended for the first time since its 2002 Sun Bowl defeat to Purdue.
Rick Neuheisel’s ’02 team needed a three-overtime victory in the Apple Cup to finish at 7-5 and secure a trip to El Paso, Texas. The next year, after Keith Gilbertson replaced Neuheisel, the Huskies were denied a bowl bid despite finishing their 12-game schedule with the required minimum of six victories.
A 54-7 embarrassment at California a week before the Apple Cup proved decisive in the snubbing. Another was a jaded fan base that had come to regard less glamorous bowl destinations – El Paso, for instance – unworthy of the Huskies’ regal heritage.
That sort of haughtiness won’t be a factor this season. There’s not much redeeming about an 0-12 record, but it sure helps to cure bowl-game malaise. Instead of groaning about a holiday-week trip to west Texas, Huskies fans would perform cartwheels upon learning that a bowl bid has been extended to the UW.
And it will be extended with a 6-6 record. Bowl committees crave teams with household-name stars; the Huskies boast Locker, whose uncharacteristically pedestrian passing stats against Arizona (12-for-23 for 140 yards) were offset by the three touchdowns he threw, not to mention his 56-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Bowl committees crave teams steeped in the habit of playing all out, all the time. The Huskies have scored more points in the fourth quarter (44) than in any other period. True, they’ve also given up more points in the fourth quarter (41) than in any other period.
In other words, they are associated with fantastic finishes that keep fans in their stadium seats and TV viewers tethered to the couch.
“Honestly, it was a pretty sloppy game on our part,” Locker admitted Saturday night. “But the one thing we did do is compete. We never gave up. We played until the end and found a way to win a game.
“The guys just kept fighting, kept playing. We knew as long as there was time on the clock, we had a chance to win the game.”
As long as Locker is on the field, they have a chance to win every game remaining on the schedule. With a defense that bends and quite often breaks, they have a chance to lose every game remaining on the schedule.
The Huskies may be flawed, but they sure are fun. Bowl scouts understand this, which is why they’ll give a 6-6 UW team the benefit of the doubt.
The rest is up to the team.
How do you study the last six games and project three certain victories?
Simple. You remind yourself how the Huskies overcame a 12-point deficit against Arizona in 18 seconds, then you write check marks alongside three beatable opponents.
You may want to use a pencil.