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Originally published October 14, 2013 at 6:53 PM | Page modified October 16, 2013 at 9:47 PM

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For Huskies, Arizona State game is critical to take next step

Washington can still make this a positive season, but to show growth, they have to beat the Sun Devils.

Seattle Times columnist

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The Huskies can save those illusions of grandeur for next season.

They weren’t up to the daydreams of toppling giants. Despite a fortnight of fantasizing about what wins over Stanford or Oregon would mean to the program (and for the most heavily invested, it was Stanford and Oregon), they came up short.

Now Washington moves on to a new dynamic, less gaudy yet more attainable. Now it’s about taking the program to the next level, rather than to the mountaintops. It’s about escaping the seven-win rut, which really was the goal when the season started. Until the Huskies got their heads turned by the lure of the bigger-time.

“Onward and upward,’’ coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday, and that’s where the Huskies must point their compasses. Just not at quite such a severe angle.

“College GameDay” has packed up its gear and moved onto the next hero’s welcome on the next football-besotted campus. For the Huskies, it’s off to the searing heat of Tempe, Ariz., and the resumption Saturday of their quest for tangible progress against a formidable, but not other-worldly, Arizona State team.

“I think the sky’s the limit for this football team as we continue to move forward,’’ Sarkisian said Monday at his weekly news conference.

The sky, but maybe not the stratosphere. The crucial point is this: Despite the disappointment of the past two weeks, the Huskies can still make this a positive season, one that displays growth and advancement for the program.

But for that to happen, a victory Saturday is virtually essential. Sarkisian accurately called this “the biggest game of the year,” and then acknowledged that the distinction is more than just coach-speak that characterizes every game.

So far, the Huskies’ season has pretty much gone chalk, if you take away the yearning for a mega-upset against No. 5 Stanford or No. 2 Oregon (though admittedly Utah’s victory over Stanford this past weekend takes away some of the luster from Washington’s near victory on The Farm).

You could more or less pencil in the four victories over Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State and Arizona, even though the first and last of those, against solid foes, were positive indicators. Then came the two blockbusters, which realistically were always longshots for the Huskies to win.

So now the Huskies face a game that is certainly challenging — they have dropped seven in a row to Arizona State — but one that will be vital to their efforts to get off the 7-6 treadmill of the past three years. More so, because the Sun Devils, who bring an identical 4-2 record into the game, are no doubt approaching the game with precisely the same outlook.

In three of the past four years, Washington has followed its annual Oregon debacle with another defeat. They escaped that trend only in 2010, but they had a bye that year before topping UCLA 24-7.

Asked if he was worried about a hangover affect after two losses in games for which the Huskies worked themselves into an emotional lather, Sarkisian replied, “I don’t know if worried is the right word, but I’m aware of the potential.”

Sarkisian said he used the metaphor of a football game when talking to the team Monday about their situation. The season is at halftime, he told them, and the outcome hangs in the balance.

“We’ve played a good first half of football against some really good teams,’’ he said. “But, just as we’ve been all season long, we’re an excellent second-half football team. And we’re going to go out in the second half and play a great half of the season. And it starts Saturday at Arizona State.’’

The second half will have its challenges, with the three toughest games remaining all on the road — UCLA and Oregon State in addition to Arizona State. And no matter where it’s played, the Apple Cup is always fraught with the potential for weirdness, as last year proved yet again. It’s hard to design a scenario that results in the season the Huskies still strive for that doesn’t include a win at Arizona State.

“We’re going to play really well,’’ Sarkisian said. “We’re going to come out of the blocks playing fast, physical football the way we’re capable of playing, and I think the guys understand that.’’

The sky might be the limit for the Huskies, but the flight plan must be followed.

Otherwise, the illusions of progress could wind up being just more delusions of grandeur.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or On Twitter @StoneLarry

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