Can you teach a team to finish?
That’s a critical question for a Washington football team with a 1-3 record in one-score games.
In the 13-7 defeat against Montana, a potentially game-saving drive with 1:12 left featured one 25-yard reception by tight end Cade Otton, four separate incompletions and a telegraphed interception that sealed the upset.
In the 27-24 loss to Oregon State, a drive in a tied game with 6:35 left ended when Dylan Morris’ quarterback sneak was stoned for no gain on fourth-and-one, preceding the Beavers’ walk-off field goal.
In the 24-17 defeat against UCLA, Morris underthrew wide receiver Jalen McMillan, resulting in an interception instead of a game-tying score. The Bruins then ran seven consecutive times for 37 yards to kill the clock.
Heck, in the 31-24 overtime victory over California, the Huskies blew a 24-10 third-quarter lead, and it took a 55-yard missed field goal by the Bears with no time remaining to mercifully force overtime.
A killer instinct, a clutch gene — whatever you call it — it’s one difference between 2-4 and 5-1.
In UW’s six games this season, the Huskies have outscored their opponents 96-74 in the first three quarters, before being outscored 48-38 in the fourth.
But this doesn’t appear to be a purely 2021 problem. Since Chris Petersen (and Jimmy Lake) arrived at UW in 2014, the Huskies have gone 13-22 in one-score games. And while Petersen lifted the program to consistent success, his teams finished above .500 in games decided by eight points or less just once in six seasons (2-0 in 2016).
So, can you teach a team to finish?
And do these Husky coaches know how?
“It’s a mindset,” Lake said Monday. “And it’s something that we harp on and talk about, going back to mat drills, about finishing in mat drills. Mat drills are our drills we do in the offseason and they’re competitive drills against each other, whether it’s one-on-one or offense against defense. It’s definitely a mindset, and our players know that they’re right there on the doorstep, and we have to finish. We have to make those plays when we’re down in the final minutes of a game. We’ve done it before, and we did it in 2020 (when the Huskies were 2-1 in one-score games), and we’ve done it obviously this year. So those guys know the taste of it.
“But, we’ve got to have the confidence and the willingness — which I know we have the willingness — to go out there and compete all the way to the end. And that’s what our guys have done. They’ve fought all the way to the end. They’ve fought all the way to the end, and now we can’t get discouraged that it hasn’t gone our way these last two weeks. We’ve got to keep pushing, keep pushing and keep working, and the result will go into our favor.”
Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles should know a thing or two about that. The junior nickelback finished with a 53-1 record at three different high schools, then went 33-6 (including two College Football Playoff appearances) in three successful seasons at Oklahoma. And while with the Sooners, “Bookie” went 11-4 in one-score games.
“When it comes down to a fourth-quarter ballgame, you just have to keep swinging, keep swinging, keep swinging,” said Radley-Hiles, who transferred to UW before the 2021 season. “That has to be the mentality. I feel like that is the mentality (here).
“When you watch those games on tape — all the games that we’ve actually lost this year — we fight to the end. Regardless of situation, regardless of point difference, we fight until 0.00. Even in the game I was not even in (the 27-24 loss to Oregon State), they fought until the end. That is for sure on this defense. We fight to the finish. I believe that wholeheartedly.”
Can you teach a team to finish?
Husky football fans probably won’t have to find out Friday, against an Arizona team that has lost 18 consecutive games (with only three of them decided by eight points or less).
But with a three-game stretch against Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State looming, the Huskies better keep swinging.
And with a 2-4 record, they can’t afford to miss.
Washington junior tight end Cade Otton — who missed UW’s games against Cal and Oregon State while in the program’s COVID protocol — called watching his team on television “one of the worst things I’ve had to do.”
“It was pretty surreal and unique,” Otton said Tuesday. “I had our play call sheet out and was kind of trying to see what we were doing and watching our tight ends and stuff. It was kind of like watching film, except it was our guys. Pretty unique. I’m glad it’s over.”
His coaches and teammates are saying the same thing. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end and first-team All-Pac-12 performer returned to action against UCLA, recording three catches for 26 yards (while Dylan Morris missed him on what would have been a wide-open 1-yard touchdown).
But Otton’s impact is felt far beyond the stat sheet.
“Obviously you’ve got a veteran that’s produced consistently in the run and the pass game and his football IQ (is advanced enough) to where he can figure some stuff out,” said UW tight ends coach Derham Cato. “Football is not a perfect game all the time. You’re going to get some looks that you haven’t seen at times, or a look that isn’t a major look of theirs and is kind of a secondary call. And for him to be able to work through some of that stuff, he knows the roles. He knows the scheme so well and he can go back to the basics and get everybody on the right page.
“That’s probably what you miss the most out of a guy like that — just the football IQ that you really only get the longer you’re here, the more you understand football, the more you understand the scheme. That’s how that builds. So we missed him a lot. Obviously he’s such a sure-handed guy as well in the pass game. So obviously we’re very excited to have him back and rolling.”
Likewise, Otton is excited to be back.
And regardless of record, No. 87 vowed to keep swinging.
“Obviously we still have a lot to fight for this season,” Otton said. “But no matter what the circumstances are, I always want to make this place better. I always want to put a better product on the field — for the fans, for my family, for my teammates, for the alumni. I’ll always keep grinding and keep trying to improve. I think our whole team feels the same way.”