No. 5 Washington faces a challenging final month that will prove if the Huskies are playoff worthy

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SEATTLE (AP) — When Kalen DeBoer was distinguishing himself as one of the top small-college coaches in the country at Sioux Falls, his teams went undefeated three times on the way to an NAIA national title.

Still, there were some rocky moments and closer-than-anticipated games along the way.

That's why DeBoer isn’t worried about the perception of how No. 5 Washington has played the past two weeks in unconvincing wins over Arizona State and Stanford. Clearly, the Huskies (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) have to show improvement in some areas heading into a difficult four-game sprint to the end of the season. But they still remain undefeated and have extended the second-longest winning streak in the country to 15 games.

“To me, it’s about the fight in the guys and working through those times in the season when it’s not perfect or you’re not completely healthy,” DeBoer said. “It’s going to be something different at different times. I think all championship teams have those close games.”

Everything looked great for Washington after its win over Oregon, which put quarterback Michael Penix Jr. atop the Heisman Trophy conversation and had the Huskies looking like playoff contenders.

Questions began to arise after Washington’s 15-7 win over Arizona State two weeks ago, when it didn’t score an offensive touchdown, and the 42-33 victory at Stanford last Saturday where its defense struggled to get stops.

Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said it goes back to preparation. Grubb noted that two days before the Oregon game, coaches saw one pass in practice hit the ground. It wasn’t that way last week and Grubb felt it showed in the win over Stanford.

“I think there is a preparation piece to that, if I’m being transparent,” Grubb said. “That’s what I told the guys on Sunday. I thought we had a good game, not a great game.”

The final month will give Washington several opportunities to reestablish Penix’s place in the Heisman race and shore up its resume for the College Football Playoff.

Once Washington held off Oregon to take the inside track on the top spot in the conference, the attention shifted to the challenges ahead. At that point, the final month appeared as a daunting final obstacle with clear potholes that could undermine what Washington has accomplished to date.

That still could be the case. But while it’s still a difficult stretch, it might not be the gauntlet it appeared to be a few weeks ago.

The most important of the four games in terms of the conference race is Saturday’s matchup at No. 24 USC. For all the flaws the Trojans have displayed recently, they still have only one conference loss and can throw the race into a mess with a win over the Huskies.

After returning from Los Angeles, the Huskies host No. 18 Utah, followed by a trip to No. 16 Oregon State and then close the regular season with what will be an emotionally charged Apple Cup against Washington State on Nov. 25.

“Even if we were winning by 30, if we’re not playing to the standard that we feel like is set in our room and in our locker room, then we know we got to do better,” Penix said after the Stanford win. “Each and every game we try to continue to take those steps to do better.”

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