How do you teach a team to finish games?
That’s not a question for you. It’s a question for Washington’s coaching staff — from Chris Petersen to Bush Hamdan to Jimmy Lake to Pete Kwiatkowski, to all the rest. And on Saturday evening, in the immediate wake of a second consecutive home collapse, that’s verbatim what Hamdan was asked.
“Bush, how do you teach an offense to finish games? How do you go about doing that?”
“Yeah, right now I wish I had an answer for you,” UW’s second-year offensive coordinator said after the 33-28 loss, staring directly ahead with a black “DAWGS” hat pulled low over his head. “But obviously we haven’t done it in the last two games. (It’s) extremely disappointing, and we need to fix it.”
Nine games in, there’s a lot to fix. On Sept. 7, UW led Cal 19-17 with 2:05 left. On Oct. 19, the Huskies led No. 12 Oregon 28-14 early in the second half and 31-21 with 3:39 left in the third quarter. On Saturday, they led No. 9 Utah 21-13 with 8:15 left in the third.
In all three cases, the game was played inside Husky Stadium — where UW won 15 consecutive games over parts of four seasons, from 2016 to 2019. And in all three cases, the Dawgs self-destructed.
In the last two losses specifically, UW was outscored by a combined total of 41-10 to finish the game.
“You know, I always say this: I know every team on the schedule can beat us,” Petersen said. “I believe that every year. And I also think we can beat every team on our schedule. So it’s just a matter of how we develop and how we progress and health and all those type of things.”
There’s something to that, but let’s get more specific: right now, at least, the first-half Huskies can beat every team on their schedule, and the second-half Huskies can lose to every team on their schedule.
That applies to both sides of the ball. On Oct. 19, Oregon’s offense scored a touchdown on two of its first seven drives, with four consecutive punts in the second quarter. The Ducks closed the game with three touchdowns in their final four drives, gaining 247 of the team’s 434 total yards (56.9%) during that span. They ran for 46 yards and 3.1 yards per carry in the first half … and 76 yards and 6.9 yards per carry in the third quarter alone.
Utah used a different formula to produce nearly identical results. After scoring just one offensive touchdown in their first nine drives, the Utes finished emphatically with back-to-back touchdown barrages that totaled 20 plays and 166 yards, while using 10:40 worth of clock. Senior quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 8 of 12 passes for 100 yards in the first half and 11 of 12 passes for 184 yards (including 10 consecutive completions) in the second. He was sacked four times in the first half and zero times in the second. His team converted 3 of 8 third downs in the first half, and 6 of 8 in the second. His team averaged 4.7 yards per play in the first half, and 7 in the second.
Again: the first-half Huskies can beat anyone, and the second-half Huskies can lose to anyone.
“We’re going to learn a lot of hard lessons from these losses we’re taking right now in these tight moments at the end of the games,” UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said. “We know we’re right there — five to seven plays here or there. That changes it the other way. Then the Dawgs come out with the victory. But right now we’re learning some tough, hard lessons. It’s going to harden us up and hopefully make us better.”
Of course, Lake’s defense shouldn’t shoulder the lion’s share of the blame. In its past two fourth quarters, UW has rushed a total of 10 times for -2 yards. It has allowed a combined one sack in the first three quarters and two in the fourth. Against Oregon, the Huskies scored 31 points in the first three quarters … and zero in the fourth. They gained 362 yards in the first three quarters, and 52 in the fourth. They closed the game with two consecutive punts and a turnover on downs.
And Saturday, in the four drives immediately following a Hunter Bryant touchdown that gave the Huskies a 21-13 lead, they went three-and-out three times and surrendered a pick-six. They committed one penalty in the first half … and five in the second.
“As soon as you do that (against) a defense like that, I mean, good luck,” Petersen said of the penalties. “It’s just self-inflicted wounds. I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you. (It’s) day one stuff. (Our) anxiety level goes up … I don’t know … against good teams. They make errors that they shouldn’t be making at this time.”
That includes the quarterback. After throwing three total interceptions in his first 34 quarters this season, highly touted junior Jacob Eason surrendered two in the third. One of them ended a drive at the Utah 8-yard line, and the other was returned 39 yards for a momentum-swinging score.
There are two ways to look at this, and one is optimistic. These Huskies are undeniably talented enough to beat top-10 teams. That’s not just a reflection of UW’s recent recruiting success, either. In back-to-back weeks, they moved the ball against the Pac-12’s premier defenses. They scored the second-most points both Utah and Oregon have allowed this season. Their admittedly undercooked defense has displayed some dominant flourishes.
The Huskies are 5-4 … but they’re also not far away.
“We’ve played top-10 teams,” Petersen said. “Those are excellent football teams. We’re not a top-10 team, but we’re right there. If we make a few more plays, we can be a pretty good team. But we haven’t. It is what it is.”
That’s the other part. You can almost win every game on your schedule and still be 0-12. They don’t hand out half-victories for winning the first two-and-a-half quarters. And for fans, it may be more frustrating to lose a game you feel like you should have won than to be thoroughly overmatched.
But back to the original question: how do you teach a team to finish games? The answer isn’t easy. UW is 0-3 in one-score games this fall and 9-16 during Petersen’s nearly six seasons on Montlake.
Washington will almost certainly be favored to win its final three regular-season games. But to finish the season strong, the Huskies need to finish in fourth quarters.