Ten days before his team produced arguably its most embarrassing performance in program history, coach Jimmy Lake was asked what it would take for Washington to compete for College Football Playoff berths on an annual basis.
“I think we’re there right now,” Lake said Aug. 24. “We’re already there. We’re already there. We’ve won two of the last five Pac-12 championships. One of them we went to the College Football Playoff. The other one we won the Pac-12 championship and we weren’t invited (to the CFP). Every single year we are trying to contend for the Pac-12 championship and then we are trying to get to that big bowl game.”
On Saturday — in front of fans for the first time in 645 days — No. 20 Washington eked out 65 rushing yards and 2.4 yards per carry, while surrendering three interceptions, in a 13-7 loss to FCS Montana.
Lake’s biggest problem is that he didn’t know he had one.
It’s that his program’s perceived strengths were systematically exposed. And now, with a nonconference test at Michigan looming next weekend, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly Washington does well.
Last week, when asked that very question, UW’s second-year coach said, “We are extremely veteran, talented and deep — very deep — on our offensive line. I would say that is a definite strength of ours. I’ll leave it right there.”
Five days later, that strength splintered, failing to provide any meaningful push while surrendering three sacks of quarterback Dylan Morris … 10 months after it allowed just one total sack in four games against Pac-12 opponents. Of course, the fact that UW was down its top four wide receivers — Terrell Bynum, Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk (the latter leaving with an injury after the opening drive) — likely allowed Montana’s defense to key on the run.
In the aftermath, Lake also conceded that UW’s playbook “was a little bit pared down, with the bodies we had available.”
But if this is a program Lake honestly believes should compete for a CFP appearance on an annual basis, none of that should have mattered.
Without its top four wide receivers, Alabama dominates Montana.
Without its top four wide receivers, Ohio State dominates Montana.
Without its top four wide receivers, Clemson dominates Montana.
Without its top four wide receivers, Georgia dominates Montana.
Washington is not Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson or Georgia.
At this point, it’s not Michigan or Montana, either.
On Saturday, it looked more like Bishop Sycamore.
As for a Husky pass rush missing All-American outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who tore his Achilles tendon in April? Last Monday, Lake assured that “we feel really good about our depth at that (outside linebacker) position right now.” Co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Ikaika Malloe added last month that “I feel like we will be one of the strengths of our defense.”
On Saturday, those Husky outside linebackers recorded a single sack and tackle for loss, via second-year freshman Cooper McDonald. Sixth-year senior Ryan Bowman had six tackles. Bralen Trice, Sav’ell Smalls and Jordan Lolohea managed one apiece.
Montana registered eight tackles for loss and three sacks — consistently applying the same pressure UW’s defense couldn’t muster.
And, besides the running game and pass rush, Morris’ ability to make sound decisions has long been considered one of the Husky offense’s strengths.
Last week, Lake said Morris “has taken his game to new heights. I don’t want to put a metric on it. But I know you guys saw it. All the open practices that we had (in fall camp), you guys saw his progression. He makes the throws.
“In turn, what you guys don’t see is he gets us in good plays. We call a bad play into a front that we don’t want to go into, or a coverage or blitz, and he gets us out of that play and gets us into a really successful play. It turns into a touchdown. It turns into a 20-yard gain. Those are the things you can’t see obviously from the naked eye. But what you guys did see was an accurate thrower, a quarterback making really good decisions and getting it to the open player and not forcing it.”
Except, we didn’t see any of that Saturday.
We saw a second-year starter who appeared uncomfortable under pressure, who ran an offense with zero rhythm and even fewer answers. He completed 27 of 46 passes for 226 yards, but served up three interceptions — the last two coming in Montana territory.
Of course, it isn’t Morris’ fault he wasn’t put in a position to succeed. Throughout spring and summer practices open to the media, he worked almost exclusively in scrimmage drills with wide receiver starters Bynum, Odunze and McMillan — each of whom were unavailable Saturday.
If it looked like Morris had little chemistry with Washington’s available wideouts, well, there’s probably a reason for that.
Plus, after second-year offensive coordinator John Donovan’s ineffective, unimaginative game plan produced precious few points in the first half, the Husky offense was also unable to adjust.
“We’ve got to make sure, if there’s any deficiency in any area on our team, that we’re ready to cover up for that,” Lake said of the suddenly depleted wide receiver room. “We didn’t do a good job tonight of doing that.”
In the end, this comes down to a coaching issue. Even the Grizzlies coaches would agree that Washington has much more talent than Montana. And on Saturday, the Huskies had a sizable home-field advantage as well.
And yet, simply put, Washington was not prepared to win.
Its head coach just didn’t see it.
“I mean, that’s what we work for every single day,” Lake said last week, when asked why his program is prepared to win a Pac-12 title and a premier bowl game. “I don’t want to just sit up here and talk about it. We’ve got to go do it. We feel like we’ve got schematics in all three phases that are going to help us. We feel we’ve recruited and have players here that are going to help us win the Pac-12 championship, first, and then go to that big bowl game and win that game.
“So, we feel we are on that right track. But guess what? We have to go do it. So, I don’t want to sit up here and talk about it. We need to go show it. Five months from now that’s what we’re doing.”
Either that, or watching bowl season from home.