Washington’s 24-7 loss to Alabama in the Peach Bowl highlighted just how difficult it is to take that final step to the top — the one that Alabama ascended long ago to the stratosphere of college football, and validated yet again in the national semifinals.
ATLANTA — It was a game for the Huskies to be proud of, even in defeat, a marker of how far this Washington program has come in a remarkably short time.
“It was a long and hard journey, I’ll tell you that,” mused linebacker Psalm Wooching. “Two head coaches, a whole bunch of position coaches, position changes, but all of that added up to this.”
It was a game to make them wonder, wistfully, what a different path it could have taken, if Budda Baker hadn’t let Jalen Hurts’ first pass slip through his fingers, if Wooching had grabbed a loose fumble, if Jake Browning hadn’t thrown the ball right into the hands of Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson for a pick-six right before halftime.
But it was also, in the end, a game that highlighted just how difficult it is to take that final step to the top — the one that Alabama ascended long ago to the stratosphere of college football, and validated yet again on Saturday in a 24-7 victory over Washington in the national semifinals.
“They kind of are what we thought they were,” said Husky coach Chris Petersen, echoing Dennis Green’s classic line about the Chicago Bears.
What the Crimson Tide are, indisputably, is the standard-bearer of the sport, unbeaten over the past 26 games, and likely headed for another national title, which would be the fifth under coach Nick Saban. And what they have done, in a very inhospitable fashion, is provide the Huskies a road map to joining the Crimson Tide at the top.
Washington defensive lineman Elijah Qualls pointed to the small handful of chunk plays the Husky defense gave up amid a heroic performance in shutting down Alabama’s offense.
“Those are the ones that give them momentum, give them confidence,” he said. “That’s the difference between the good teams and the great teams. That is a great team out there. And this team is a pretty damn good team, and could be great for sure. I have no doubt in my mind. We just have to get there.”
And therein lies the rub. The Huskies made it to the Final Four, so it’s obvious that they are a legitimate national-caliber team, and to a man they felt they could have won this game with better execution, and a few breaks.
But it was just as obvious that the Tide was the superior team — bigger, deeper and more well rounded, leaving opponents absolutely no margin for error. There’s no shame in losing to them; some rate this Alabama team as the greatest in college-football history, and you’ll see many of them playing on Sundays.
But the Huskies learned some hard truths in the process. They need to beef up their offensive line. They had a 270-pound true freshman asked to block guys on Alabama’s defensive front who could be starting for the Seahawks. They need more than one explosive playmaker. Alabama’s game plan was geared to stopping wide receiver John Ross, and they did so with aplomb, limiting him to just 28 yards on five catches. While Dante Pettis is an excellent receiver and hauled in Washington’s only touchdown, he doesn’t inspire quite the same game-breaking fear as Ross. Against a defensive front that smothers the running game, the Huskies didn’t have an answer.
Quarterback Jake Browning, a legitimate Heisman candidate much of the season, needs to find a way to bring the same magic against fast and athletic teams like USC and Alabama, versus whom he had his worst games in Washington’s only two defeats. Browning is an absolute asset for the Huskies but there is growth to be made and lessons to be learned — actually an encouraging sign for a better Washington future.
Wooching noted that “There wasn’t too much respect out there for our defense, and I feel like tonight we really showed that our defense can play with anyone out there … I feel it opened up the stage for us to not be looked at as ‘possibly good,’ or stuff like that. We held our own.”
Asked what it will take for the Huskies to climb the final rung on a national level, Wooching’s answer was frank, but not in a vindictive way. More like a gentle push into 2017.
“To be real, the offense has to step up,” he said. “They just need to be confident. They’re great players. They just need to finish this, the little details and stuff like that. If that was the case, the outcome might have been different today, because our defense was great.”
To Petersen, it’s about the players realizing now, courtesy of Alabama, what it required of them and building from that. Last year, the Huskies used a fast finish, including a victory over Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, as the impetus for a superb 2016 season. Now they need to use the burning hurt they were feeling on Saturday to push them harder, and higher.
“I think there’s some lessons to be learned in this game, what we have to do to truly compete at this elite level,” Petersen said. “They’ve seen it. They’ve felt it. They’ve tasted it a little bit. So that’s good. But I think our job as coaches will be to take them back to what got us here.”
That started last year with what coaches and players have characterized as an offseason of fierce dedication to getting stronger. That’s where it will start again. The Huskies need to savor the great things they accomplished this year, the rout over Stanford, the long-awaited victory over Oregon, the Pac-12 title, and let it drive them as much as the disappointing ending.
“The fact we hit all those steppingstones was just a progression of helping the team grow into something bigger,” Qualls said. “It’s not even close to what it can be.”
Qualls talked about the pure joy he felt in measuring himself against the best team in college football. The Huskies must all do that, in an honest fashion even if it’s painful, to be ready for a different result if they get back here again — and Petersen has built the program into one that can realistically aspire to a national championship.
“We talked about how the bar has been moved, and they get that,” Petersen said. “So they got a taste of it, and that’s awesome. I think that can change your mindset. But it’s not like, when we go back to work, we’re the same team. It’s a balance between knowing that they can do special things if we kind of go back to our humble roots of starting over.”