In Friday’s far-too-tense victory over Rutgers, the Huskies sent a vivid message that Chris Petersen is absolutely right when he says each season is its own entity, to be played out in an entirely new universe.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — You kept waiting for the separation, for the sparkle, for the dominance that was supposed to send the Huskies off on their way to another storied season with a season-opening laugher.
Waiting, and waiting.
Instead, the Huskies got a wakeup call every bit as jarring as the thunderous sack that sent Jake Browning crashing to the turf in the first quarter. This wasn’t a Washington squad flaunting its high ranking and toying with Rutgers like they did in last year’s opener when they led 24-0 after the first quarter. That was an instant message to the world that this was a team to be reckoned with.
Instead, in Friday’s far-too-tense 30-14 victory at High Point Solutions Stadium over that same Rutgers team — same in name only, to be sure — the Huskies sent a vivid message that Chris Petersen is absolutely right when he says each season is its own entity, to be played out in an entirely new universe.
The Huskies can still go every bit as far as they want to, which is one step farther than they did last year. This game did nothing to deter that. But it also gave them an outline for the improvement that will be necessary for that to happen.
“I think they’ll calm way down,’’ Petersen said. “There’s a lot of little things. Those headsets were buzzing the whole game with this little thing and that little thing.”
But, a little more alarmingly, some big things, too. The Huskies, Petersen said, need to shore up their run game (“average at best,’’ he called it) and improve their tackling. Petersen shared Browning’s general sentiment that the offense hadn’t played up to standards.
“I think we all felt that way. Rutgers did a nice job,’’ he said. “They kind of played more physical than we did, is my initial impression.”
That was mine, as well, an inescapable conclusion that is mind-boggling for the No. 8 team in the country when it’s facing a team that was winless in its conference last year. Granted, Rutgers could well be much improved. The Scarlet Knights have three well-regarded transfers, 11 new starters and a new offensive coordinator. But the Huskies still should have been able to distance themselves far more easily.
“We expected it to be a hard fight,’’ insisted wide receiver Dante Pettis. “They’re not the same team they were last year, and we knew that.”
Still, throughout the first half, you kept waiting for the Huskies to gain control and commence to romping in line with the 27½-point spread. And it never happened. Take away a brilliant, now-familiar 61-yard punt return for a touchdown by Pettis in the second quarter, and Rutgers, which jumped ahead 7-0 and didn’t trail until 3:50 was left in the half, was the more dominant team. They looked tougher and stronger than the Huskies. They won the battle up front. They executed better, and even seemed more fired up than UW — odd optics for a team with all fashion of glory visible in front of them.
The Huskies couldn’t run the ball in the first half, with Myles Gaskin mysteriously missing in action. They couldn’t convert on third downs, going 0 for 5 while the Scarlet Knights were going 5 of 10. Several times, the Huskies seemed to have Rutgers pinned, only to have it wiggle out of danger. Meanwhile, Washington had two drives start promisingly in Rutgers territory, only to fizzle into punts.
Things turned around in the second half as Gaskin was assimilated into the offense, Browning played well and the defense took control, but the Huskies still settled for field goals on a couple of forays into the red zone. They received a huge break when Rutgers, on successive drives into Husky territory, chose to punt on 4th-and-one rather than going for it. You don’t pull off upsets by playing it safe.
Asked about the impression some would have that the Huskies didn’t dominate as much as they should have, linebacker Keishawn Bierria shrugged and said, “I agree with them.’’
He added quickly, “The goal was to come out here and win the game. I don’t care if we won by one point, or if we went into overtime and won in OT. We definitely got that done, but we also definitely know we have to go back to the film and clean some things up and make sure we get to work next week.”
Bierria said that early adversity is a good thing for the team, and indeed Petersen will have no trouble getting their attention next week when they begin preparation for Montana. The key, the coach said, is how they respond.
“We won, and that’s what we were here for,’’ he said. “We got that done. But I do think it was a little bit of a wakeup call, like, ‘OK, we’ve got to go now.’ What that team so long ago last year did so well, we practiced and they got better. And I expect us to do that here.
“That’s what I’ve been saying. It’s not last year’s team. It’s a whole new team. Some guys are back, there’s some young guys that can change everything. We’ll get better. … I don’t think anyone panicked or anything like that. But I could sense toward the end of the game, they do think we have a ways to go.”