Injuries have forced No. 12 Washington (6-1, 3-1) to play without six starters at times, but this team might still have a shot at the College Football Playoff.
Before the season, Chris Petersen noted the Washington Huskies would need two things if they were going to repeat as Pac-12 champions and return to the College Football Playoff — luck and good health.
“Got to have a little bit of luck like we had last year and stay relatively healthy,” the UW coach said July 26 at Pac-12 Media Days. “Maybe there’s a couple programs that can withstand a bunch of injuries … (but) most aren’t like that.”
A year ago, the Huskies navigated a 12-2 campaign that ended in the CFP semifinals without all-conference linebacker Azeem Victor (leg fracture) and defensive end Joe Mathis (toe) in the second half of the season.
UCLA @ UW, 12:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN/ESPN2
They missed a combined 12 games, which weakened one of the best defenses in the country, but otherwise UW avoided the rash of injuries that’s befallen this year’s team.
A little more than midway through the 2017 season, injuries have forced No. 12 Washington (6-1, 3-1) to play without six starters at times — including slot receiver Chico McClatcher (ankle), offensive tackle Trey Adams (ACL) and cornerback Jordan Miller (ankle), who will not return this season.
“That’s all it is is blind luck when you’re going through these seasons,” Petersen said Monday on his weekly radio show. “Sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t.”
Five games remain in the regular season for a UW team that saw its CFP hopes suffer a significant setback after a 13-7 upset loss last week at Arizona State. The Huskies are off this week, which is a good time to examine the first half of the season and survey what’s ahead.
While breaking down the offense, quarterback Jake Browning said: “We need to get better. … We’ve done some good things, but nobody is happy about that last game. We can do better than that.”
The ASU clunker is an anomaly considering the Huskies averaged 43 points and 432.3 yards in their first six games. Still, UW has been held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in three games.
MVP: Browning. Through seven games last season, he had 1,709 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 68.6 percent of his throws and threatened to break Russell Wilson’s season NCAA passer-rating record.
After seven games Browning has 1,605 yards and three interceptions, while completing 68.5 percent of his passes. He’s on a similar pace as last year, but the biggest drop-off is he’s thrown 14 touchdown passes, which illustrates UW’s need to find a big-play threat and a red-zone target to complement leading receiver Dante Pettis.
Breakout star: Tight end Hunter Bryant. Due to the dearth of depth at receiver, it’s difficult to imagine where the Huskies would be if the touted freshman hadn’t emerged. He’s first on the team in yards per catch (15.0) and second in receptions (21) and receiving yards (314). And to think, Bryant didn’t have much of a role in the first two games.
Second-half spotlight: Offensive lineman Andrew Kirkland. Petersen calls the fifth-year senior “The Fireman” because he’s filled in admirably in emergency situations while starting 12 games the past two seasons. He’ll likely replace Adams on an offensive line that had had the same starters in every game.
Only Michigan allows fewer yards per game among FBS teams than the Huskies, who are giving up 236.9. Washington, which hasn’t allowed a passing touchdown in the Pac-12, is third in the nation in points allowed (10.6) and tied for 14th with 22 sacks.
Co-MVPs: Defensive tackles Vita Vea and Greg Gaines. They form a 660-pound anchor in the middle of the field that’s been a nightmare for opponents.
Co-Breakout stars: Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven and cornerback Myles Bryant. A year ago, they combined for 49 tackles and this season they lead the Huskies. Burr-Kirven is tops with 42 — two shy of last year’s total — and Bryant has 35.
Second-half spotlight: Cornerbacks Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor. One of these freshman defensive backs will be asked to replace Miller, and they’ll likely be tested early when quarterback Josh Rosen, a projected top-five NFL draft pick, and the UCLA Buins visit Oct. 28.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
The Huskies are thriving on punt returns and punt and kickoff coverage, but the uncertainty at kicker has made PATs adventurous. Petersen also hinted at upcoming personnel changes on the kickoff-return unit, which averages 20.5 yards on 12 returns.
MVP: Pettis. He has three punt-return touchdowns this season and is tied for the all-time NCAA record with eight punt-return TDs. UW often benefits from good field position when opponents punt out of bounds to avoid giving him a chance.
Breakout star: Punter Joel Whitford. The freshman from Neerim South, Australia has excelled since taking over the punting duties. He ranks seventh in the Pac-12 while averaging 41.8 yards per attempt, which is a 1.1-yard increase for UW from last season. Opponents have returned just four punts for 30 yards, and nearly a third of Whitford’s punts end with a fair catch.
Second-half spotlight: Kickers Tristan Vizcaino and Van Soderberg. They’ve combined to convert just 5 of 12 field-goal attempts. Or look at it this way: The Huskies have missed 5 of their last 7 FG tries, including 21- and 27-yarders that proved fatal in last week’s loss.
Aside from unintentionally creating a minor dust-up with ESPN broadcasters, Petersen has steered UW on a course toward another special season. The UW staff has skillfully implemented seven true freshmen and 14 other newcomers to plug holes created by the injuries. Washington is tied for 15th nationally among FBS teams and second in the Pac-12 in penalties per game, averaging just 4.3. Petersen admitted the Huskies are getting adjusted to their new role as favorites, which might explain their slow starts.
“When we come into the stadium, these are like huge games for these teams,” he said. “Not that they’re not huge for us, but it’s like the biggest game that these teams have played. Everybody has got us circled. Everybody is like juiced up. It’s not another game to them.”
Projecting the rest of the season
Four of the last five games are at Husky Stadium, starting with UCLA and then Oregon on Nov. 4. The toughest remaining hurdle appears to be a Nov. 10 date at No. 22 Stanford. The Huskies close at home versus Utah and Washington State. They’re 9-1 all-time against the Utes and have won seven of the past eight games versus the Cougars.
Prediction: Washington wins its remaining regular-season games and repeats as Pac-12 North division champions. The Huskies blow out USC to capture a second straight conference title and squeak into the CFP to face top-seed Alabama again in the semifinals. But UW comes up short once more and finishes 12-2.