Sports

Washington is quietly making a statement

Psalm Wooching
Washington linebacker Psalm Wooching celebrates after sacking Stanford’s Ryan Burns on Sept. 30.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

That other college football team from the Pacific Northwest has been doing its best to lay low through the first weeks of the season.

The Washington Huskies quietly went about winning their games, nothing too flashy, lurking in the shadows of traditional powerhouse Oregon.

But a statement victory over Stanford has pushed the Huskies to No. 5 in this week’s AP poll and keeping the whole thing a secret might be tough, no matter how hard Coach Chris Petersen tries.

“It was one of those nights where we are good and took the next step,” Petersen said after the 44-6 win. “That’s really all it is.”

Approaching the midway point of the season, the weekend offered a number of big games, not to mention a flurry of last-second, last-gasp finishes. When the dust settled, the national playoff picture looked a little clearer.

No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Michigan made all the right moves to put themselves just behind top-ranked Alabama and No. 2 Ohio State. Now Washington belongs in the conversation, too.

With an emerging star in quarterback Jake Browning and a defense that stifled Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, the Huskies might represent the Pac-12 Conference’s best shot at earning a spot in college football’s big dance.

Not that it will be easy for path for them.

Their nonconference schedule, padded with the likes of Idaho and Portland State, won’t overly impress the selection committee. One loss would probably knock them out of contention and once again leave the Pac-12 shut out of the playoffs.

Maybe that’s why Petersen and his players insist upon remaining low-key as they prepare to face the Ducks on the road Saturday.

“We need to build off of this,” defensive end Joe Mathis said of the team’s 5-0 start. “And do even better this week.”

Bump on the road

When is a loss not quite a loss?

Although Clemson bolstered its resume with Saturday night’s marquee victory over Louisville, the loser of that game still has a realistic shot at the final four.

The Cardinals dropped only a few spaces to No. 7. They no longer control their destiny in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they do have No. 6 Houston on the schedule next month.

Given that their comeback bid at Clemson fell only a few yards short, they should have a chance to claw their way back up the rankings by winning out.

At the same time, quarterback Lamar Jackson remains a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, rebounding from a rough start against the Tigers to amass 457 yards passing and rushing.

“It’s a real tough loss,” Coach Bobby Petrino said. “ We will come back though and we will be all right.”

Getting by

At this point, it is fair to wonder whether Tennessee is a team of destiny. Or a team whose luck is due to run out.

The Volunteers barely escaped being upset by Appalachian State in the season opener, then stretched its record to 5-0 at Georgia in a game that featured not one but two Hail Mary touchdown passes in the final 10 seconds.

The 34-31 victory lifted them to No. 9.

“Just finding ways to win football games,” Coach Butch Jones said, adding: “What can I say?”

All the questions about Tennessee should be answered in the next two weeks with games at No. 8 Texas A&M and at home against Alabama.

Imagine that

 Michigan fought its way to No. 4 in typical Big Ten Conference fashion, with a 14-7 defensive win over Wisconsin. Still, nothing is entirely typical with Jim Harbaugh as the coach.

This is a man prone to long silences and occasional, unintelligible rants. He recently held forth on a tiny, imaginary figure named “Freddy P. Soft” who wears a cape and whispers into players’ ears, telling them not to practice so hard.

“He’s not a guy you want around,” Harbaugh said. “Get him off your shoulder as fast as possible.”

On Saturday, the Michigan coach had his offense line up single-file, nine players directly behind the center, with the quarterback shuffling alongside.

Only at the last moment did the Wolverines shift into a more conventional formation, running the ball between the tackles for five yards. Harbaugh said it was a trick play that his son Jay, the tight ends coach, came across.

“It was good,” he said. “Guys had fun with it.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton