Now comes the heavy lifting for the Washington Huskies.
No more Rutgers adjusting to a new coach, or Idaho visiting as a 35-point underdog, or overwhelmed-from-the-opening-kickoff Portland State allowing the Huskies to empty their bench in the third quarter.
In a game that was supposed to have the degree of difficulty of preparing an instant breakfast, Washington completed the play-money phase of its schedule Saturday with a 44-18 victory over Arizona State.
Give ASU this much: The Sun Devils widely maligned defense looked nothing like the compliant punching bags many of us had anticipated. It forced a punt on the Huskies’ first possession, and when UW got the ball back on the ensuing fumble, the offense had to settle for a 28-yard field goal.
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Moments later, Arizona State’s embattled secondary made a rare play when cornerback Kareem Orr picked off a Jake Browning pass that sailed through the grasp of wide receiver Dante Pettis. The interception, among two Browning threw in the first half, was consistent with a malaise about the offense surely related to the letdown following last week’s loss to USC.
When a previously undefeated team loses in mid-November — doesn't just lose, mind you, but gets dominated by a faster, quicker opponent — it can be a psychological body blow, if not a knockout punch.
In any case, the Huskies were flat until midway through the second quarter, especially on offense. Then the talent gap between the teams was revealed during a four-play drive that covered 84 yards, culminating with Browning’s deep-strike touchdown pass to a wide-open Pettis.
The score was 17-0, soon to be 24-0 at halftime. Browning had rediscovered the precision timing he shares with Pettis and fellow wide receiver John Ross, and from that point the only question was whether the UW defense would record the team’s first shutout in 14 months.
(It didn’t. Facing a fourth-and-16 at the Washington 32, with 2:17 remaining in the third quarter, Devils head coach Todd Graham called upon his field-goal unit to spare him the ignominy of returning home without having scored. Arizona State tacked on two garbage-time touchdowns to make the game appear less one-sided than it actually was.)
There will be no talk of a shutout come Friday in Pullman, where Washington State figures to give the Huskies defense all it can handle. Pay no attention to the 38-24 beating the Cougars took Saturday at Colorado.
WSU’s Luke Falk is America’s most accurate collegiate passer, and though it’s obvious he misses injured receiver River Cracraft, there’s something about Martin Stadium that transforms Falk from a very good quarterback into a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
The Cougars’ home-field edge is not built on anecdotes about inclement Palouse weather. They’re scoring an average of 14.7 points more in Pullman this season than on the road.
Factor in some vengeance associated with Washington’s 45-10 Apple Cup victory last season — Falk sat out with a concussion — as well as the reality a Pac 12-North championship is at stake, and it’s easy to make the case that UW deserves to be installed as underdogs for the first time in 2016.
Should they win their seventh Apple Cup in eight years, the Huskies will advance to the conference title game against either Utah or Colorado.
Farther down the road looms a bowl game, and the possibility it could be the program’s most significant one since the 1992 Rose Bowl.
Whatever happens on Friday in Pullman, Washington will play a minimum of one more game after the Apple Cup, and as many as three.
Each will be a quite more severe test than the two-foot putts the Huskies faced throughout a season that was long on highlights but short on drama.