The Washington Huskies have won 32 games in the last three seasons.

But they’ve yet to win the big one.

Yes, despite all the recent success, Chris Petersen and Co. have struggled to stick the landing. They fell 24-7 in a Peach Bowl loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2016-17. A Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State and a Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State have served as increasingly unwelcome sequels.

On the ladder to national prominence, the Huskies are teetering near the top. One false move, and they could plummet into Pac-12 purgatory. Develop a few more four- or five-star prospects at the right positions, and a return to the College Football Playoff could be in reach.

So, what does Washington need to do to take the next step in 2019? Here are three keys, and three concerns, to a postseason bowl game breakthrough.

Three keys to breaking through

1. Elevating the passing attack

It’s not all about Jacob Eason.

Let’s take a look at the blueprint from 2016 — when Washington’s offense was electric, its defense was dominant and the program reached the College Football Playoff as a result. It’s true, quarterback Jake Browning’s statistics were staggering: 3,430 passing yards, 170.46 passing efficiency rating (fifth nationally), 43 touchdowns, nine interceptions, big play after big play after big play.

But who was Browning throwing to? Remember, a pair of wide receivers — John Ross and Dante Pettis — combined for 1,972 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns. By comparison, just 10 total teams (!) tallied more than 32 touchdown passes last season (and Washington managed 19).


The lesson? Personnel matters. So does play-calling. Petersen and second-year offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan conceded this offseason that they need to simplify their game plan and trust their receiving corps more in the downfield passing game. (Didn’t Wayne Gretzky say something about missing 100 percent of the shots you don’t take?)

So, yes, Washington needs to take shots. That’s where Eason comes in. The Huskies’ 6-foot-6, 227-pound junior quarterback needs to make decisive decisions and trust his renowned right arm. And while his receivers don’t need to be Ross and Pettis, there must be capable contributors — looking at you, Aaron Fuller, Chico McClatcher, Ty Jones, etc. — ready to stretch the field and terrorize opposing defenses.

2. Dialing up defensive pressure

There’s more to defensive pressure than simple sack totals.

For proof, let’s assess where all five national champions in the CFP era ranked nationally in tackles for loss per game.


Ohio State: 14th (7.33)


Alabama: 24th (7.2)


Clemson: 3rd (8.67)


Alabama: 24th (7.21)


Clemson: 2nd (9.07)

Since Petersen took over at UW, the eventual national champion has compiled at least 7.2 tackles for loss per game every season. In that same period, Washington has yet to cross that threshold.

And, of course, there’s a whole lot more to it than that. The UW defense could not be described as disruptive last fall, finishing 118th nationally in tackles for loss per game (4.57) and 100th in sacks per game (1.71). Even an elite secondary can falter when opposing offenses are consistently ahead of the sticks and their quarterbacks are rarely forced into poor decisions.

So, what’s the solution? The Huskies would prefer not to apply pressure solely through blitzing (despite the fact that safety Taylor Rapp led the team with five sacks last season). The hope is that they’ll create consistent pressure with improved pass-rushers Joe Tryon, Ryan Bowman and Ariel Ngata. Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui and true freshman Laiatu Latu could get into the mix as well.


There doesn’t have to be one savior for the Huskies to have success.

“The pass rush is on all 11, and all of us coaches,” defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said earlier this month. “We blitz a number of different people, so it’s not just on the defensive ends. It’s not just on the tackles. We blitz our backers, our DBs. So at this point it looks good, but we’re not going to really know until we get to a real game setting.

“At this point we’re pleased with where it’s at. We’ve got to continue to work and hopefully we’ll get to that game and see the results.”

3 Avoiding the head-scratching upset

First, the good news: Washington is 19-1 inside Husky Stadium in the last three seasons. Not only that, but the Huskies host nearly all of their most formidable threats — USC, Oregon, Utah, Washington State and Cal — in Seattle this fall.

But where have the Huskies fallen short in the last two seasons? Stuffed in otherwise successful schedules have been a pair of inexplicable October road losses — a 13-7 stinker at Arizona State in 2017 and a 12-10 calamity at Cal last season.

Ironically, both the 2017 Sun Devils and 2018 Golden Bears finished a perfectly mediocre 7-6.


But want to get even weirder? In both games, the UW offense was limited to exactly 91 rushing yards.

At this point, Washington is favored to win all 12 of its games this season. But preseason predictions hardly matter. The Huskies need to show up for their marquee match ups, sure. But they also must take care of business against inferior opponents on the road — say, at Arizona on Oct. 12 or at Colorado on Nov. 23.

After all, you can’t win the big one without winning all the little ones first.

Three concerns

1. The inside linebacker shuffle

Current Seahawks linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven was listed at 6-0, 221 during his senior season at UW.

Strange, we know. He played much bigger.

So big, in fact, that Burr-Kirven was named the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year and scholar of the year — the first time someone has accomplished that feat in the same season. So big that his 176 tackles were the most for a UW defensive player since 1987. So big that he produced 103 more tackles than his next-best teammate, and added six pass breakups, 5.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and two sacks for good measure.

His impact was huge, but the void he left seems even bigger.


Even for the most experienced inside linebacker, with an endless array of athletic gifts, Burr-Kirven would be difficult to replace. But the Huskies have neither depth nor proven contributors at the position.

It seems senior Brandon Wellington is the sure thing, but is he a sure thing? The 6-0, 226-pound Eastside Catholic alum has started a grand total of two games in his college career and amassed 50 tackles and three tackles for loss in his first three seasons. He missed the first four games last fall while recovering from a torn ACL. A breakthrough in 2019 is certainly possible, but it’s far from a lock.

And who will start beside him, where departed linebacker Tevis Bartlett reliably roamed? It seems like the initial answer is senior Kyler Manu, who has compiled just 12 tackles in four seasons on campus. Redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon, M.J. Tafisi and Edefuan Ulofoship — a trio tall on talent but short on meaningful reps — should push for playing time as well.

Maybe Wellington will work out. Perhaps Manu or Sirmon will step in and excel. But this is the spot on UW’s roster where an injury, or a slump, could sink the entire ship.

2. Revamping the red zone

What good is a sustained drive if it doesn’t end in the end zone?

Petersen and Co. mulled that question throughout the 2018 season, when Washington converted red zone trips to touchdowns just 56.45 percent of the time (105th nationally).


And, if you’re into pointing fingers, you might need to borrow some extra hands. First-year play-caller Bush Hamdan likely deserves some of the blame. So do the quarterbacks, receivers, offensive line, running backs, tight ends — everybody.

“We would have fixed the problem last year if it was one thing,” Petersen said in UW’s season-opening press conference on July 31.

Hamdan should make strides in his second season in charge of the offense. The Huskies’ plethora of physical pass-catchers — see Hunter Bryant, Cade Otton, Ty Jones, etc. — could provide some answers as well.

Another season of red zone struggles could ultimately cost the Huskies games, especially in close contests against rivals like Oregon and Stanford.

But fear not: Petersen has a plan.

(He’s just not going to tell you what it is.)

“It’s one of the tougher areas to even operate in as an offense,” he said. “So we can keep going down the list and it’s a little more complicated than you think. That’s why we study it. It’s not easy to come out and go, ‘Yeah, we’re going to come out and do this one thing,’ and the magic wand has been waved.


“But we think we have a plan going forward to try to fix it.”

3. Not-so-special teams

Washington’s special teams was not good enough last season.

Is that clear enough? No? Beyond the nightmare-inducing visual of freshman kicker Peyton Henry misfiring on a 37-yard field goal at the end of regulation that would have upended rival Oregon, there are statistics that speak to UW’s struggles.

The Huskies ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in allowing 14.6 yards per game on punt return, and sixth in the league in kickoff return yards allowed (63.1 per game). Henry’s kickoffs resulted in a touchback just 32.9 percent of the time (11th in the Pac-12). UW finished 112th nationally in kick return average (17.81 yards) and 109th in punt return average (5.30 yards).

So, yes. Not good enough — basically across the board.

In his sophomore season, it looks like Henry has beaten out highly touted freshman Tim Horn to hang onto the place-kicker job (though Horn will take over kickoffs). Punter Joel Whitford is back, as are prospective returners Aaron Fuller, Salvon Ahmed, Sean McGrew and Chico McClatcher.

The names are mostly the same. But will the results be different?

“You already know, (the special teams was) not up to standard,” Petersen said on July 31. “Everybody in this program, everybody that’s associated with it, we’ve got to do better there, and we will, and we’ve been working hard since the second the season was over, trying to analyze. Because there’s a lot of work that we’ve got to do, and it starts with us as coaches, without question.

“But I also don’t think we’re far away from being pretty darn good. You put the tape on and it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the kicking and punting game, the coverage units, or guys holding up for our punt returner to get loose. We’re not far away. But we’re also not so naïve that it’s not going to take a refocused effort and a lot more work to take that next step. When we do, I think we’ll be pleased with our results.”