Washington has come far during Chris Petersen’s tenure as coach, but, just like last year’s loss to Alabama, this defeat shows there’s still a gap to cross to become a player for a championship.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Here’s Vita Vea’s take-away after what will be his final Husky game before declaring for the NFL: “I feel like this team and this staff, they’re not too far away from a national championship.”
That may be the case, but such a utopian outlook from the standout nose tackle was hard to discern on an excruciating day in which the Huskies were outmuscled, out-quicked and thoroughly outplayed by Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The final score was 35-28, but if it’s possible to have a seven-point rout, this was it.
“They had us on our heels most of the night,’’ said coach Chris Petersen, who declared himself “flat-out miserable” as he began the postgame news conference.
Speaking of miserable, a word must be said about the 1-8 record in bowl games by the Pac-12, an ugly tally upon which the Huskies added the final “L.” In a year in which the conference is already facing a lagging amount of esteem and got aced out of the playoffs, the road to national respect just got steeper by virtue of the worst postseason a league has ever had.
Petersen insisted that each of those games must be taken as its own entity and that the whole isn’t necessarily the sum of its parts. “Sometimes, you have those years and everybody says that’s a bad conference,’’ he said. “And I don’t really think that.”
If the Huskies were trying to rescue the Pac-12 prestige, they needed to find a way to get off the field on third down. As it was, they allowed Penn State to convert 13 of 17 such situations, a source of mounting frustration for the Husky defense and unequivocally the story of this game.
“We understood third down is a money down; you’ve got to get off the field,’’ said linebacker Keishawn Bierria.
“And every time we have a problem with that, we lose games.”
Give much of the credit, as Petersen did, to Penn State’s elusive, resourceful quarterback. Move over, McDreamy and McSteamy. The matinee idol on Saturday was McSorley — junior Trace McSorley, who was 12 for 12 on third-down passes, not to mention a critical fourth-down conversion as well.
“If you had to point to one thing, I think that is why we lost this game,’’ said linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven. “It’s tough, it’s frustrating, because we’re used to shutting that stuff down. It just felt like we were doing everything right, but we just couldn’t get off the field, over and over again. It was definitely tough.”
It is a credit to the resilience of the Huskies — and the three turnovers they forced — that despite giving up 545 yards of total offense (the most ever for Penn State in a bowl game), despite a deflating 92-yard touchdown run by Saquon Barkley, and despite an offense of their own that moved only in fits and starts, they still had a chance to tie or win at the end.
Of course, there were only 34 seconds left when Washington got the ball with 72 yards to navigate, down a touchdown. No doubt almost every thought of those watching went to Petersen’s legendary hook-and-lateral play (and also a Statue of Liberty) with Boise State to beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Indeed, the Huskies tried the hook-and-lateral in the waning seconds but that fizzled when Dante Pettis’ desperation pitch was snared by a Penn State player.
Pettis, a senior playing his final game after a career that put him in the national record books, had as good an analysis as anyone: “We didn’t get done what we needed to do. We couldn’t move the ball as well as we would like to, didn’t stop them enough on defense, didn’t score enough points.”
It was the third loss in four bowl games under Petersen and underscored the dual reality of just how far the Huskies have come in his regime — 22 wins the past two seasons — but also how agonizingly hard that final step is. They got a glimpse of that in last year’s loss to Alabama in the Peach Bowl and were hammered with it again on Saturday.
“This isn’t how we wanted things to end, by any means,’’ said sophomore defensive back Austin Joyner. “We want to finish. You get this close and you don’t finish, it seems like it’s all for nothing.
“We, I, everybody, the coaches, everybody knows there’s something they could have done better. It’s just details. It comes down to the smallest details. That was shown today. We had trouble on third down because we weren’t detailed enough. We knew what was coming, but we just didn’t make the play.”
Vea, speaking in barely audible tones, had a more succinct summation: “They played a great game. Obviously, we didn’t.”
It’s true that the Huskies weren’t at full strength, with Pettis still visibly hampered by the ankle injury he suffered in the Apple Cup, and other key players out of action.
“I think sometimes to really do some special things at the end of the season you’ve got to somehow have a little luck on your side and stay relatively healthy,’’ Petersen said.
Doing special things at the end of the season — including reaching Vea’s ultimate dream — remains the Huskies’ goal. While there was much rightful pride in the locker room, especially from the seniors, about how far the program has come in the Petersen years, there was also the gnawing sense of an opportunity lost.