For the second strait year the Huskies find themselves looking for answers after a brutal stretch in the middle of the season. The difference for this season is the Huskies ability to make themselves bowl eligible before facing the ranked teams in the PAC-12 conference. Was the Huskies initial hot start due entirely to a softer schedule, or is the team actually regressing?
While the Huskies started out hot record wise, there first couple of games were anything about overwhelming victories, and in retrospect gave us all a hint of what to expect later on. Not being able to blow out a division 2 team and a mediocre Hawaii team should have given us this hint this was not a top 25 team yet.
Washington came into the season with the looming question, 'Would Keith Price be able to take over for Jake Locker?' Even though he did not pass for a lot of yards against Eastern Washington, he was efficient, and that became the surprise story for the Huskies as the season got rolling.
Everyone knew about Chris Polk by this point, but the balanced passing attack directed by Price showed signs of gelling into a unit that could put up some serious numbers. The talent of the targets Price works with seems to be improved from the Locker era. The veteran receivers were playing even better, and were being pushed by the younger guys on the roster. Price also had the benefit of a real
threat at tight end, something Locker lacked his senior season.
Despite the loss against Nebraska, Washington really were starting to look like a top 25 team to start out the season. Although Nebraska was on the verge of a complete blow out, the Huskies fought back and were able to make it somewhat respectable in the end, showing signs that this team was mentally tougher and ready to make the next step.
Washington cruised through the early part of the PAC-12 schedule, and stood 5-1 when they made the trip to Palo Alto, California to meet the Stanford Cardinal. That is where this Husky team started to show that while they are an improved team, they are still not quite top 25 quality.
Stanford blew UW out of the water in an embarrassing 65-21 blow out, the type of game that was supposed to be behind the Huskies this season. To this teams credit, they dusted themselves off and picked up a victory against a more evenly matched opponent in Arizona.
The Huskies then had another chance to prove they had worked their way back into the top 25 when Oregon came to town for the final game at Husky Stadium before renovation. The game was set up to be a turnaround for the team. While the Huskies played the Ducks closer than they had in years, in the end it turned into an emotionally deflating 8th strait loss to the Ducks.
After an emotional loss to Oregon the Huskies traveled to Southern California with one last shot to take out a top 25 team during the 2011 regular season. Again, the Huskies came out flat and were handled easily by the Trojans, who had no lack of motivation considering the Huskies had taken the last two in the series.
Now as we head to the final two games of the season the Huskies are out of opportunities to show they can beat a top 25 team in the regular season. While that was a step many felt Washington would be able to make this season, the Huskies have certainly made progress this season. Beating the teams you are supposed to beat is a step along the rebuilding ladder, and the Huskies have a chance to complete that with only Oregon State and Washington State left on the schedule.
Make no mistake, how the Huskies do in these last two games is going to drastically affect the perception of this team. Losing even one of these final games will give credibility to the argument that the Huskies have regressed during the season. If the Huskies are able to finish the season with two victories, it will make the argument that they simply ran into more talented teams more plausible.
After the 5-1 start it was easy for Husky fans, and the team itself, to start dreaming big. Washington was brought back down to reality these last few weeks, but as long as they are able to finish strong, this rebuilding project is still on track. An 8-4 regular season finish with the possibility of a 9-4 season after the bowl game still shows a team that is trending upward.
Rebuilding can be a frustrating experience, but there a lot of positives that can be taken from this season. Washington has a chance to reaffirm those positives in these last two games, or wipe away all the goodwill they had built up before the Stanford game. Look for these Huskies to finish the season in similar fashion to the 2010 season, letting Polk and the rest of the run game lead you to a successful finish. A bowl bid might be on the line this time around, but there is plenty left to prove.