In the run-up to Thursday's Stanford game, Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian gave an interview that at the time seemed extremely Pollyanish.

Comparing his Huskies with the No. 8 Cardinal, Sark told writer Gregg Bell that his team was closing in on Stanford and the rest of the Pac-12 elite.

"We'll be there. ... We're not that far away from that," Sarkisian said.

Even die-hard Husky fans were skeptical. Seattle Times writer Bob Condotta noted his surprise that bloggers were questioning why the point spread for the favored Cardinal wasn't bigger. And no wonder. Statistically, the Dawgs were near the bottom of the Pac-12 in almost every meaningful category except pass defense, and even their lopsided win against Portland State had seemed unconvincing.

Sark apparently knew something the rest of Husky nation didn't, noting wryly after the Dawg's 17-13 victory that, besides himself, the team and perhaps his wife, "I don't know who else thought we would win tonight."

Win the Huskies did, and they did it with old-fashioned, smashmouth football. The defense, UW's Achilles heal last year, did not give up an offensive touchdown. It swarmed to the ball, gang-tackled and bottled up Stepfan Taylor, limiting the highly regarded Cardinal tailback to a scant 75 yards. It put just enough pressure on Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes to make him ineffectual. Stanford went three-and-out on five of its seven first-half possessions.

The Huskies overcame what could have been a crushing interception that put them behind 13-3 late the third quarter. The offense struggled but put together two drives when it mattered most, converting two fourth-and-and short situations on the way. Tailback Bishop Sankey's 61-yard, fourth-down touchdown, which capped off the first of those efforts, could well become the stuff of legend, the type of signature play that defines UW's gradual ascendancy during the Sarkisian era.

But the question remains, how far have the Dawgs come? How good a measure was this shocking win — Sarkisian's first victory over a ranked team since the win over USC in 2009? How good is Stanford, anyway?

The Cardinal came to CenturyLink Field 3-0, having beaten USC in its previous game. It returned six offensive starters and seven defensive starters from last year. And it has had one of the best winning records in college football over the last three years.

Still, this did not look like the same team led last year by Andrew Luck, the first player chosen in last year's NFL draft. Stanford's Luck-less offense seemed out of synch. Nunes clearly was rattled by the noise generated by a crowd of nearly 56,000, pitching several passes into the turf. When Nunes was on target, Cardinal wide receiver Ty Montgomery muffed at least a couple catches.

But give credit to the Dawgs. They stood toe-to-toe with a team that was bigger. They were the more physical of the two teams.

"This is a unique group we have here ... a resilient, serious, tough-minded group," Sarkisian said. In particular, he was pleased the Huskies "played the game the way it should be played. ... We were a disciplined group. (Defensive coordinator) Josh Wilcox deserves great credit."

At 3-1, the Huskies seem to have a solid footing as they purse a third consecutive bowl berth, even though Oregon (away) and USC (home), loom dead ahead.

Still, it seems UW climbed a rung or two in its effort to re-establish itself among the league elite. And though Sarkisian is optimistic, he's far from claiming such a place.

"We're 1-0 in Pac-12 play," he said. "There's plenty of stuff we will have to fix and learn from," noting, for example, that the pass protection for Husky signal caller Keith Price was so leaky it doomed chances to throw the ball far down field.

But his team may have learned a more important lesson from this game, Sarkisian said.

"From our kids, what we want every time we take the field is belief. That's probably the biggest thing we achieved tonight."


Andre Stepankowsky is the city editor for The Daily News. He can be reached at andre@tdn.com or 577-2520.

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