Saturday's setback at California was undeniably one of the low moments of the Chris Petersen regime at Washington, reminiscent of last year’s loss to Arizona State.
BERKELEY, Calif. — There was a time when it seemed as if Chris Petersen could do no wrong, when the Huskies football team was on a perpetually upward trajectory, when the occasional agonizing losses were viewed merely as aberrations.
But this year, it has been different, subtly so at first and then glaringly, maddeningly obvious on Saturday in a 12-10 loss to struggling California, which no one will ever confuse this year with a Pac-12 contender.
Now you have to wonder, suddenly, where Washington fits into that equation. A Husky team once viewed as a powerhouse, a national contender, has been oddly off-kilter all year. The offense is stuck in the mud. Even the wins came more difficultly than they should have, and the losses – three of them now – have been unambiguous messages that these 2018 Huskies were overhyped and are underachieving.
Petersen’s magic touch has gone missing as well. Two weeks ago at Oregon, he made the dubious choice to put the game on the shoulders of a redshirt-freshman kicker, Peyton Henry. Instead of aggressively attempting to go for the win, or at least move closer for an easier field goal, Petersen backed off the Washington offense to leave Henry with an ill-fated 37-yard opportunity to win it. It was a decision Petersen admitted, in retrospect, he would have done differently.
Now Petersen might want a do-over for Saturday’s startling but equally ill-fated decision to pull senior quarterback Jake Browning in favor of another redshirt freshman, Jake Haener, on Washington’s third possession of the second half. Again, it was a dubious situation to thrust a freshman who hadn’t yet faced that kind of heat or that kind of tension.
Yes, the Husky offense had been sputtering ever since a smooth touchdown march on its opening drive. Yes, it was showing anew how much it misses running back Myles Gaskin, who sat out again with a shoulder injury. Yes, in the words of offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan, “We need to take the next step, and we have not.”
But the key point is that the Huskies were still winning the game, 7-6, when Petersen, in a desperate attempt to jump-start the offense, benched Browning for the first time in his career that didn’t involve an injury or a Husky rout.
“That had more to do with me trying to do something to help this offense way more than it did with Jake (Browning),’’ Petersen said afterward. “Jake is a competitor. Jake does everything we ask. But, you know, we got to try help this offense out somehow, someway.”
But instead, the switch took a disastrous turn. Haener, who had shined in mop-up duty against North Dakota, discovered (not at all surprisingly) the Pac-12 is an entirely different animal. A pass intended for Andre Baccellia was jumped by Cal linebacker Evan Weaver, who returned it 37 yards for a stunning touchdown that ultimately sunk the Huskies.
Browning would eventually return and nearly authored a heroic turn when his 23-yard, scrambling pass to Ty Jones put the Huskies 9 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. But as so often has happened this year, they sputtered in the red zone, settled for a 26-yard Henry field goal to pull within two – and never got the ball back.
So now the Huskies are left with a flood of questions, not the least of which is why a fourth-year quarterback, a first-year offensive coordinator and a proven head coach can’t get the offense humming. Injuries certainly play a role, but something definitely seems to be amiss.
It’s a situation that is clearly frustrating Petersen and Hamdan. I’d imagine it’s frustrating Browning as well, though he was not made available to the media after the game. Asked how Browning reacted to being pulled from the game, Petersen replied, “He was mad. I mean, Jake’s a competitor. He’s mad right now. And I’d expect nothing different out of him. It is what it is. Just trying to do something to spark this offense, because we’ve got to score more than we’re scoring.”
Hamdan pointed the finger at himself.
“Not a good-enough job mixing it up on my part,’’ he said.
Washington’s running game sputtered, particularly on first down. Salvon Ahmed finished with minus-2 yards on eight carries, largely as a result of two huge losses. Browning, sharp on the first drive, had one of his occasional head-shaking interceptions on the next one to thwart another promising drive.
From that point on, it was a slog for Washington, right up until the end, when it couldn’t get the final 9 yards needed for a go-ahead score.
“We’ve got to finish that,’’ Hamdan said. “Our defense played their tails off, did a good job on special teams. We got plenty of opportunities. This one’s on us.”
This was undeniably one of the low moments of the Petersen regime, reminiscent of last year’s loss to Arizona State when the Huskies were unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country, only to fall 13-7 to a middling Sun Devils team.
That one crushed many dreams. This year’s Washington team had already had its playoff hopes squashed, and even if this loss didn’t quite slam the door on a Pac-12 championship, it showed they clearly have considerable maintenance to do.
Otherwise, the once meteoric trajectory of Washington football will continue to level off, and the frustration will only grow.