Washington expected to put an embarrassing winless season behind it and climb toward contention under new coach Steve Sarkisian, but it probably didn't foresee doing so this quickly.
Sarkisian, however, says he's not surprised.
Ranked for the first time in six years after Sarkisian's third game, the No. 24 Huskies look to build on a big upset Saturday night when they visit Stanford in a matchup of teams trying to improve to 2-0 in Pac-10 play.
Washington lost 21 of its last 23 games under coach Tyrone Willingham, including all 12 last season to become the first winless team in school history and the first Pac-10 squad to go 0-12.
Despite coming off such a dismal season, the Huskies (2-1, 1-0) have made a smooth and speedy transition back to the national spotlight under Sarkisian. The rookie coach's debut wasn't a bad one -- losing 31-23 to then-No. 11 LSU -- though it gave Washington a conference record-tying 15-game losing streak, but the Huskies have bounced back with their first consecutive victories since Aug. 31-Sept. 8, 2007.
After snapping the skid with a 42-23 win over Idaho on Sept. 12, Washington shocked then-No. 3 Southern California 16-13 last Saturday. The Huskies ended a seven-game losing streak against the Trojans, notching a home win against a team ranked in the top three for the first time since Nov. 14, 1981, also against No. 3 USC.
"Just to go through the things we have together in this program and to get that win together, it was emotional for all of us," quarterback Jake Locker said, his voice on the verge of cracking.
Sarkisian's first hallmark victory put Washington in the Top 25 for the first time since Sept. 28, 2003. But Sarkisian, who spent seven seasons as a USC assistant, claimed he expected the Huskies to compete immediately.
"We talked a lot early on that it wasn't going to take us very long, and I firmly believe that," Sarkisian said. "I think some people in the world outside our own little domain probably thought that was just press conference speak. But when you get around our kids, you get around our coaches, I firmly believe it's not going to take us very long."
Having Locker under center should help the rebuilding process. The junior, limited to four games last season because of a thumb injury, completed 21 of 35 passes for 237 yards against a stingy Trojans defense.
Locker was particularly effective on the Huskies' final drive, completing all four of his throws for 56 yards to set up Erik Folk's tiebreaking 22-yard field goal with three seconds left.
"It tells them that he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. That's what I feel like," said Jermaine Kearse, who caught a 21-yard pass from Locker on third-and-15 early in the drive to keep it alive. "Not a lot of quarterbacks can do what he just did right there. Jake is a tremendous athlete and can make a lot of plays happen."
The Huskies, who followed their last climb into the Top 25 with back-to-back losses, will try to avoid a similar setback against Stanford. But even talking about the possibility of a letdown is progress.
"It seems like a long way to go, but we always had it in us. We believed in ourselves, and we never doubt ourselves," running back Chris Polk said. "We play in the absence of fear and expect the best, and the best outcome will eventually come."
The outcomes haven't been ideal lately against the Cardinal (2-1, 1-0), who have won three of the teams' last four meetings. But Washington won its last road game in the series, 27-9 on Nov. 3, 2007. Locker was 16 for 32 for 151 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, but he also ran for 97 yards and two TDs.
The Cardinal won 35-28 in Seattle last season.
Stanford won its home opener 42-17 over San Jose State last Saturday night behind Toby Gerhart, who ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Owusu opened the game with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and also caught a TD pass from Andrew Luck as the Cardinal won for the sixth time in seven games at Stanford Stadium.
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A couple of teams looking to climb the Pac-10 ranks face off when Stanford hosts Washington. Both teams are 1-0 in conference play, but the Huskies have the marquee win over USC. The Cardinal have beaten the Huskies, ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2003, three of the past four meetings.