We’ll start with the obvious: Your team’s chances of losing are greater if it is trailing at halftime than if it is leading. A Mensa membership is not required to figure this out.
However, a great coach will often make the adjustments necessary to overcome a midgame deficit. And this is one area where Chris Petersen seems to have struggled at Washington.
With Petersen at the helm, the Huskies have lost their past 10 games in which they were behind at the half, and 15 of their past 16. They also have blown four first-half leads in that span, and lost to Oregon last season when the game was tied at the break.
These numbers should not detract from Petersen’s Huskies reaching a New Year’s Six game in each of their past three seasons while winning two of the past three Pac-12 title games. And they don’t reflect UW’s ability to hold or expand leads over that stretch, which has been impressive.
But those post-half stats do call into question Petersen’s ability to adapt when facing adversity. And right now — the Huskies desperately need to adapt.
This is probably the most disappointing first half of a season the Huskies have had since Petersen took over in 2014.
They might have suffered more defeats at this point in his second year, but back then, Washington could reach expectations without standing on its tippy toes.
With defeats against unranked California and Stanford in 2019, though, the Huskies (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) are wounded with the meat of their schedule still in front of them. And if ever there was a time for the Pac-12’s highest-paid coach to earn his money — it’s now.
How the Huskies got here
In Pac-12 games not involving Washington, Cal and Stanford are a combined 1-4 this season. But both were able to batter the Huskies up front while taking advantage of a substandard passing game.
The Bears’ running backs combined for 152 yards on 23 carries in Seattle last month, while Washington receivers dropped five balls thrown by quarterback Jacob Eason, who finished with 162 yards and an interception on 18-for-30 passing. The Cardinal rushed for 189 yards (and threw for 293) Saturday, while UW receivers dropped another five balls from Eason, who finished with 206 yards and an interception on 16-for-36 passing.
Aside from the lightning-induced delay during the Cal game, there was nothing particularly fluky about either of these defeats. The Huskies just got beat — in remarkably similar fashion.
So can they adjust?
After Saturday’s 10-point loss, Petersen said the Cardinal “played more physical than us.” He walked that back Monday after watching film, and said his team “played hard.”
But the problem on defense never seemed to be lack of effort so much as the Huskies getting pushed around. That doesn’t seem like a simple fix.
On offense, however, there might be room for experimentation. The Huskies really have utilized only three pass catchers this season— Aaron Fuller, Hunter Bryant and Andre Baccellia, who have combined for 1,076 yards on 79 receptions. And Saturday, Fuller was the only wide receiver with a catch through the first three quarters.
Petersen said that some of the highly touted freshmen receivers — such as Puka Nacua, Austin Osborne and Marquis Spiker — haven’t proven enough in practice to warrant more playing time. But is it possible that some of these guys might thrive in a game situation?
Think of someone such as former USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who transformed the Trojans as a redshirt freshman when he got a shot in Week 4. Or Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew, who went from second-stringer to NFL offensive rookie of the year candidate after his predecessor went down with an injury.
These young receivers are practicing against a defense that knows the playbook. Is it crazy to think they might shine brighter in the play than the dress rehearsal?
All that is speculation for now, but it’s clear something needs to happen. Saturday, Washington has a road game vs. Arizona, which is unbeaten in conference and 4-1 overall. After that, the Huskies still have to face 13th-ranked Oregon, 15th-ranked Utah and rival Washington State. And who knows? Given the nature of that Stanford defeat, the Huskies might struggle against Oregon State and Colorado as well.
Last year, after a stunning late-October loss to Cal, the Huskies won four in a row en route to capturing the Pac-12 title. This season, a shot at a conference title seems far more dubious.
What’s clear is that this year’s Huskies need to change for the better. The question is whether Petersen can make that happen.