HONOLULU — It began as most beginnings do. It was unfamiliar, uncomfortable, thrilling, exasperating, suspenseful and, ultimately, a relief.
The Chris Petersen era started with an escape. And an exhale. It wasn’t all high-fives and high praise. Years from now, this debut should prove to be a mere snapshot in Petersen’s album, but it’ll be one of those ugly childhood photos that you wish your parents wouldn’t show to company.
“I think it’s going to be a big wake-up call,” Petersen said of his debut. “We’ve just got to be more consistent.”
In a 17-16 victory over Hawaii at Aloha Stadium on Saturday, the Washington football team didn’t play to its No. 25 preseason ranking, didn’t play outstanding in any aspect of the game and didn’t leave you feeling like greatness is on the horizon. This was a huge letdown. There’s no reason to get carried away and express grave concern about where the program is headed. But there was legitimate reason to expect more, and Petersen’s Huskies couldn’t deliver a stunning first impression.
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The Huskies looked shaky on defense early before recovering and mounting some impressive second-half stands. The offense was erratic early and nonexistent late, failing to score in the final 30 minutes. The Huskies struggled to defend the pass, especially on third down. They allowed 217 rushing yards, and their own running game produced just 3.6 yards per carry. They fell behind 10-0 and found themselves in an anything-can-happen fourth quarter on the road.
And need we remind you that Hawaii went 1-11 last season and has low expectations again for 2014?
Guess Petersen wasn’t playing coy when he said the Huskies, in transition with a new coaching staff, were behind.
Guess there also won’t be a ceremony next Saturday to rename Husky Stadium after Coach Pete.
As great as Petersen’s Washington tenure will be — and I’m no less bullish on what he will accomplish, even after this shaky showing — a dominant program doesn’t develop quickly. The Huskies could’ve won this opener by 50 points, and it wouldn’t have guaranteed anything other than a public outbreak of giggling. The fact that they barely survived against a bad team serves as a reminder that transition is a process, and that disappointing P-word begets an even more difficult one to tolerate — patience.
“I’m actually thankful Hawaii came out like that,” defensive tackle Danny Shelton said. “It was a teaching moment for us.”
No, the Huskies can’t get a refund after one game on the $18 million contract it gave Petersen. And if you’re already thinking that way, you should be sentenced to watching a loop of Saturday’s game for the remainder of the season.
The Huskies will get significantly better over their 13-game regular season. But their task is also rather large, much larger than expected. Many hope the Huskies can manage a 10-win season, and maybe they will, but right now, they’re in the early stages of learning Petersen’s system.
They have major concerns on both sides of the ball. They’re more talented than what they showed Saturday, but they’re not playing loose and confident. Their secondary is as raw as its youth suggests. Their passing game is substandard. Though quarterback Jeff Lindquist did some nice things (tough running, a beautiful 91-yard touchdown pass to John Ross) and displayed good leadership, he was 3 of 15 for 28 yards in the second half. After halftime, the Huskies had eight possessions. They punted seven times and ran out the clock on their last drive.
It became clear that Cyler Miles, who was suspended for the opener, is the Huskies’ best quarterback option. Assuming Petersen is satisfied that Miles is dependable on and off the field now, the job should be his to regain.
The Huskies deserve some credit for holding things together on the road just enough to get a win. They flirted with disaster all night, but their defense held onto a halftime lead.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” linebacker John Timu said. “All that’s left to do is improve.”
In a game like this, the players did learn plenty about their new coaching staff.
“You can tell everything’s going to be all right by Coach Pete’s demeanor — very calm,” Timu said. “Disciplined. Focused. He made sure nobody panicked.”
Said Ross, who finished with 198 all-purpose yards: “It was real frustrating, but Coach told us to keep our heads up. We knew how to play in a game like this. We practiced everything. We’ve been in situations in practice where he had us down 10-0 and needing to respond.”
As the game ended, Petersen sighed and tried to hide any emotion. He has a perfectionist streak, so he’s not happy. But with a new team, he’s also not going to be too negative.
“I’m going to work really hard to be a glass half-full kind of guy,” Petersen said.
Or perhaps he’ll drop this glass when nobody is looking, let it shatter and begin anew next week.