John McGrath: Importance of Cactus Bowl win goes beyond Huskies’ record

The Washington Huskies will play a football game on ESPN on Friday night. To neutral observers inclined toward snap judgments — I’m talking here about 99 percent of the national television audience — the Huskies have little at stake in their Cactus Bowl contest against Oklahoma State.

Washington’s record is 8-5. The difference between winning and finishing 9-5, or losing and finishing 8-6, is the stuff of minutiae.

Unlike last season, when former UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo served as an interim replacement for Steve Sarkisian during the Las Vegas Bowl, the coaching staff is stable behind Chris Petersen.

But for those emotionally invested in the UW program, the Cactus Bowl is more than an event that enabled Petersen to hold 15 extra practice sessions. A “must win” game? Of course not. If the Huskies win, they board a jet and go home. If the Huskies lose, they go home anyway, presumably on a jet.

And yet there’s an importance — almost an urgency — about the Cactus Bowl. The 2014 Huskies have yet to beat an opponent that finished with a winning record, and while that pattern can’t be altered against the 6-6 Cowboys, a bowl game victory would qualify as Petersen’s first marquee win at Washington.

It’s been a strange, rocky-road year for the coach. In February, Petersen still was trying to associate roster names with faces when quarterback Cyler Miles and receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow were allegedly involved in an assault near campus. Petersen kicked Stringfellow off the team and slapped Miles with a one-game suspension that prevented the quarterback from participating in spring practice.

The sophomore quarterback was going to struggle learning the nuances of a different playbook anyway, but missing spring football guaranteed that nothing would come easy for Miles and, by extension, the rest of the offense.

Despite the absence of Miles in the opener, the Huskies were prohibitive favorites to beat a Hawaii team that went 1-11 in 2013. They won, 17-16, but their sluggish performance in the near standoff set the tone for a season that didn’t find the offense and defense simultaneously clicking until November.

How difficult was 2014 for a coach widely regarded as among the best in the business? This difficult: Petersen’s most impressive work — putting the underdog Huskies in position to upset Arizona on the road — was obscured by the furor over some of the clock-management decisions he made in the final minutes.

The train wreck conclusion could have defined 2014 as a messy and ultimately frustrating year of transition at Washington. But instead of splintering the Huskies, the 27-26 defeat seemed to invigorate a team that closed out the schedule with no-doubt victories over Oregon State and Washington State.

It took a while for the offense to become assertive — the running game didn’t heat up until the weather got cold — but as Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll might say, finishing with a final-round flurry is more satisfying than starting with a first-round haymaker.

The dots can be connected: Dwayne Washington’s late-season emergence as Bishop Sankey’s successor in the backfield allowed linebacker/running back Shaq Thompson to concentrate on defense. Miles, meanwhile, gained tangible confidence as defenses were forced to honor a play-action component on passing plays.

A few weeks ago, Thompson was named an All-American, along with defensive linemen Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton. Three All-America players on one side of the ball qualifies as historic at Washington, but also poses a question: How does a defense with that kind of talent give up 52 points to Eastern Washington and 44 points to UCLA?

An inexperienced defensive secondary absent savvy leadership is how, but the question is moot. The Huskies figured things out. They dominated Oregon State in the home finale, 37-13, and they dominated WSU in the Apple Cup, 31-13.

They’re on what appears to be roll, and the Cactus Bowl will determine if the roll portends a more stable season for Chris Petersen in 2015. A victory seen on national television can give the coach’s first-year program both an emphatic finish and a fresh start.

I’m not certain what that entails, but I know this:

It ain’t minutiae.