SEATTLE-Now comes the difficult part of Washington's football season.
No, not the tough stretch of the Huskies' schedule. That started in September with Ohio State, and is still going strong. This difficult part of the season has a lot more to do with what's going on internally than who's lining up across the ball from the Huskies.
The Huskies need to beat No. 7 Oregon as much for
locker-room morale as they do for their bowl chances.
When asked about the team's mental state and confidence this week, most Washington players have said more or less what they've said after each loss: that everything is OK. That they're a good team that just needs to cut back on mistakes. That they still believe they can finish strong and make a bowl game.
Yet for the first time this week, some of the players who seemed so optimistic after losses to Ohio State, UCLA and USC, indicated that all is not quite so well after the latest second-half collapse.
Center Juan Garcia, one of the team's leaders on offense, has been nothing but positive this season after losses. He's granted every interview request, and spoken with a smile while talking about how close the Huskies were to a turnaround. After losses to UCLA and USC, he told reporters, just you wait, we'll put a game together and show everyone that the Huskies are back.
Garcia's outlook this week sounded different.
"The last few weeks, I think we were good, it was just a couple of losses and stuff," he said. "This week, I don't know where we are right now. We just need a win. That's what we need right now. We're starving for a win. Coming off last weekend was disappointing, playing hard and all that, and in the end just not winning. We're just trying to figure it out."
The senior center wasn't all doom and gloom, but even when he started a thought talking about the Huskies bouncing back, he went back to worrying what a loss Saturday could do to his team.
"After a loss like Saturday, the first two days you kind of dwell on it, but then Tuesday comes around and you get that jump in your step again and Oregon's coming in, so it's good," he said. "But at the same time, we've got to get something, because I'm not trying to go two and whatever. We need a win bad. We've got Oregon next and we've got to do whatever it takes to get these guys, because another loss, I don't know what it could do to the team."
This is why a home game against Oregon is so important. Not because the Huskies need it to help their bowl chances (which they do), but because they can't afford to have players stop believing. One of the best things about this team is the fight it has shown in its losses. Despite being outmanned in each of the four losses, the players have not given up. Players that have conceded defeat don't block punts in the final minutes down 10 points, as Roy Lewis did to keep Washington's slim upset hopes alive against USC. Give Tyrone Willingham and his staff credit for that.
But a fifth straight loss, especially one that resembles the blowouts Oregon has handed Washington the last three years, could start to put doubt in a group of players that have experienced much more losing that winning while at Washington.
Another senior leader, defensive end Greyson Gunheim, hinted that locker-room cohesiveness isn't quite what it was earlier in the season.
"Everyone is (mad) and wants a quick change, and everyone is trying to find that," he said. "For the most part we're all on the same page wanting to turn it around, but when this happens there's always a few people making excuses and pointing fingers and stuff like that, but the leaders on the team go around those guys and tell them what's going on and calm them down. People are just mad about it, I think that's why those things happen."
To be fair, it's impossible to expect any football team to have that many players all agree on everything, but comment's like Gunheim's show that things could be changing after four straight losses.
Willingham said he hasn't seen any finger pointing, only frustration, which is a good thing for the Huskies for one of two reasons. Either it's not going on, and Gunheim misinterpreted something as finger pointing, or it is happening, but seniors like Gunheim and Garcia are putting a quick stop to it. Either way, a win would do wonders for this team's psyche.
"I don't think that's what it would be called, I think it would be called frustration," Willingham said when asked if he'd noticed finger pointing going on. "People want to be successful and are working hard, and often when you work hard and don't see the fruits of your labor, you get a little upset, you get a little angry."
And if doubt is creeping into the Huskies' minds, most players won't say it, nor should they. Football teams can't afford to lose confidence or cohesiveness midway through the season, especially teams trying to turnaround a struggling program. Another loss, however, could put the Huskies down that path.
"I think it's great," defensive tackle Jordan Reffett said when asked about Washington's confidence. "We get together and watch video on Sunday, and there's some big mistakes on that video, but they're all fixable mistakes. I've said in the past that we're just a couple of plays away from being a great football team, and I really believe that. I think that we can be something special these last seven games. I think everybody is really upbeat and we're excited."
Oregon is good. Half a season of evidence says the Ducks are better than Washington, but the Huskies need to find a way to pull off an upset.
"We can still win," offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said. "Sometimes are we outmanned? Yeah. But you can still win. Every Saturday somebody wins that's not supposed to. We've got to do that. We've got to win a game that we're not supposed to. There's no better one than Oregon. There's no better one than these guys.
"We've got to win. Everybody understands that. We've got to find a way to win a game."
John Boyle writes for the Everett Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.