Washington leaves no doubt: The Huskies are national title contenders

Jennifer Buchanan/Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

How’s that for a breakthrough?

We knew the Washington Huskies were going to be good this year, but we didn’t know how good until Friday night. The first real test of the season, No. 7 Stanford, would give us a clear understanding of where the Huskies sat in the Pac-12 food chain.

The answer: at the top.

It’s not even close.

The Huskies made a declaration with their dominating 44-6 win over the Cardinal in the de-facto Pac-12 North title game Friday night in Seattle — Washington is the class of the Pac-12, and a bonafide national championship contender.

Washington — yes, Washington — controls its own destiny in making the College Football Playoff.

If the Huskies continue to play like they did Friday night, making the four-team field might be just the start.

Friday night’s win over Stanford was comprehensive and illuminating. Was Stanford overrated heading into the game? There was no doubt about that, even before the game kicked off, but the final score was hardly within the margin of error. The Huskies had more speed, more skill and a better scheme, and — this was the shocker — they won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

When you can win a few of those areas, you’re good team. When you win all four, handily, you’re elite.

Washington’s win was even more impressive because Stanford is a line-of-scrimmage team — the Cardinal don’t have the best athletes in the nation, but David Shaw’s team definitely has discipline, strength, smarts and toughness. Stanford keeps players close to the ball and wins in the trenches.

But the trenches were Washington’s domain Friday. The Huskies sacked Stanford quarterbacks eight times and UDub’s offensive line’s push was jaw-dropping. It looked like Washington was consistently playing 12 against 8.

This, against a team that prides itself on never getting punked.

Washington’s offensive punch rivals any team in America: Jake Browning showed Friday why he — not UCLA’s Josh Rosen — is the best second-year sophomore starting quarterback in the Pac-12; Myles Gaskin, the sophomore running back, was a dynamic force in both the running and passing game, scoring two touchdowns; and the wide receiver pairing of juniors John Ross and Dante Pettis is arguably the best in the nation outside of Clemson.

Washington’s offense is among the best in the nation — Friday, it outgained Stanford 424 yards to 213 with speed and power. These pups can play.

 

Then there’s that defense — that beautiful Washington defense.

The Huskies didn’t blitz Stanford Friday — they didn’t have to. The Huskies’ four-man defensive line abused the Stanford front five. Then it dominated Stanford’s front six. And then its front seven. Stanford continued to commit players to pass protection, but you can’t turn back a tide: Washington sacked Stanford quarterbacks eight times without a blitz and had nine tackles for loss in the game.

Defensive end Joe Mathis lived in the Stanford backfield. It was bordering on cruel.

Behind that dominant defensive line is a hard-hitting, kinetic linebacking core and secondary, led by safety Budda Baker.

Stanford only rushed for 29 yards in the first three quarters — the Huskies did the impossible and made Christian McCaffrey look human (49 yards rushing). That’s a testament to that back seven’s ability to swarm the ballcarrier.

The Huskies have the speed on defense, too — they can cover a tremendous amount of ground — but they have one of the telltale signs of a national championship-contending team: a hard-hitting physicality that elicits gasps from the crowd.

Where is Washington’s weakness? It’s certainly not on the coaching staff — Chris Petersen is one of the nation’s best, even if you forget about him when discussing the best in the business. Last year, Washington was dominated by Stanford, but this year, the coin was flipped — that’s what a great coach can do for a team.

Frankly, the only thing that might slow down this Washington team is youth and perhaps the inability to handle prosperity.

Looking at the Huskies’ schedule, there shouldn’t be a game where they aren’t favored. Next week’s game against Oregon will be a big test — how will they follow up a near-perfect contest? The Oct. 29 contest at Utah will be a delight for anyone who enjoys watching hard-hitting, well-coached teams.

But after Friday’s game, there’s no doubt that the Pac-12 is Washington’s to lose.

College football has a new elite team, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be going away anytime soon.