SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Washington coach Chris Petersen took the podium Thursday morning at the Fiesta Bowl media day. Here’s some of what he had to say:
COACH PETERSEN: Good morning. We’re excited to be here. We’ve had a good few days of practice here since we’ve been here, excited to be out there back again today and put some final touches on the game plan. But coaches and kids have had a really good week here and we’re getting excited to play.
Q. Special teams, is there added importance on both sides?
COACH PETERSEN: I don’t think for us special teams is ever added importance. It’s always of paramount importance in every game we play. So when you’re playing a really good team and big games it’s going to come down to all those important phases and to us special teams is as important as offense or defense. So we put as much emphasis in it from day one from spring football to what we do right now, so it doesn’t change the importance of it. It is important. Every game, every day to us.
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Q. What do you remember about your time in Pittsburgh (as QB coach in 1992)? Do you have some fond memories of that?
COACH PETERSEN: Yeah, that was a long time ago. Yeah, I like the city of Pittsburgh. It’s different than I think people in the West that hadn’t been out there, spent anytime there. And we weren’t out there very long, just been married. And really just started in coaching. And it was a good time. Learned a lot. Coach Paul Hackett was the head coach out there. And he’s still one of the best teachers I’ve ever been around in terms of teaching quarterbacks, explaining the game. Yeah, there’s a lot of things I learned in my short time out there, but I enjoyed it.
Q. Could you reflect on the growth this year of Salvon Ahmed and sort of what that threat of his speed could mean in this game and down the road?
COACH PETERSEN: Yeah. I always think it’s unique when we play those freshmen, especially when they come out and have that, can play at a high level from the start.
I think the thing that’s interesting about Salvon that we’ve kind of said from the start is he’s such a great kid. He wants to do everything just right and sometimes that can slow guys down a little bit. So I think just him getting more reps in games and moving him to different positions and kick returning and all those things, you really feel like his future is going to be really, really bright.
As explosive as he is, you’re kind of excited to see how this thing is going to go for when he just plays more and doesn’t think so much and he just goes. You see flashes, in the games, you see flashes in practice where you’re just like, wow, this is different and this is really special.
And he’s a great guy to be able to coach, because he likes to be around those guys who want to get it just right, and sometimes — that’s what you’re pushing so hard for as a coach and sometimes there’s certain guys like him that you’re, like, you’re fine; it’s good enough. Just go.
Q. With Jonathan Smith leaving and Matt Lubick taking over, has much really changed or does he have his own little flavor? Also, I talked to Penn State’s defensive coordinator about your propensity to dial something up in terms of trick plays for the game on Saturday. He said he’s gone back and watched about 10 years worth of them. I asked if he had a favorite and he said he hated them all. Anything specific dialed up for Saturday?
COACH PETERSEN: Now, you know if we did I wouldn’t say anything anyways. I like it when guys have to go back and look at all that stuff. I think that’s a lot of wasted time and energy. But I guess we’ve got time on our hands for these bowl games. So it is what it is.
Yeah, and as far as Matt, kind of the way we game plan anyways — everybody has sections. Scott Huff has been the mastermind behind the run game, protections, for the whole year. And then you put those different plays into sections of the game plan that everybody feels good about. You kind of go from there. But it will be different. There’s no question about it. Jonathan’s been calling for the last handful of years. But Scott Huff will be very involved as well in terms of calling this game. So between the two of them, yeah, we’ll make it work.
Q. From the time you’ve been here of course you’ve always had Keishawn Bierria. How would you describe the impact Keishawn’s had on this program, not just what he’s done on the field but also how he’s mentored guys along and set an example?
COACH PETERSEN: He’s a unique guy that he’s such a good player, for one. I think he’s always just working to get better himself. That’s nice to be around that. And it’s nice to watch his game continue to grow and become a real detailed player in there. But probably the best thing that he does is just his presence on the field, in the locker room, with the guys. He’s all about football. He’s all about the team. He’s all about doing it the right way and he’s just got that kind of “it” factor about him. And that will be the hardest thing about replacing Keishawn is really just who he is.
He’s a good football player, but he brings so much to the table in that intangible section that that’s going to be the hardest thing for us to replace next year. So I’m excited for him to end his career in a game like this. He’s been here a long time. And he’s one of those guys it’s like, wow, where did this go, it’s like Keishawn is actually going to be done. And we’ve been here for a long time, but it just goes so fast. And excited for him to play this game.
Q. Talking about somebody going back and watching 10 years of film, when you have three or four weeks to prepare for a bowl game, do you think that coaches sometimes fall into the trap of trying to do too much or — having too much time on their hands?
COACH PETERSEN: I know we do. I don’t worry about the opponents in terms of what they’re going to do. But I think it’s really hard — it’s really hard to stay tight in your numbers, for us always, because you can only practice so much. You get more practice time so you’re just kind of — you’re practicing stuff that’s not going to get called in games.
And so when you have a bye week or you have a couple of weeks in terms of a bowl preparation, it’s always been hard for us to stay true to the numbers in the game plan that you’re going to end up calling. And so I do think that that’s the thing for us on our side to make sure we stay to what we’ve been doing all year.
Q. Everybody knows that Saquon Barkley is kind of the guy that you look for when you prepare to face Penn State, but what do you see from Trace McSorley? And what do you want to do to kind of prepare for him?
COACH PETERSEN: I think any really explosive offense in this day and age, it’s always about the quarterback. I think Barkley is a unique, rare talent at that size and that speed. There’s no question. That’s why he’s going to be drafted where he’s going to be drafted. That’s obvious. But the guy that makes this go is the quarterback, for sure. He’s a good football player. I mean, he’s the kind you’re like, yeah, you’d like him on your team.
You can tell he’s a competitor. He runs. He’s tough. He can throw it. They use him in unique ways. Real creative on offense and different things they do with him. And he makes it go.
Q. The quarterback, Trace McSorley, and their offense forces guys to make a lot of different decisions, right? It forces you guys into a lot of one-on-one matchups. What are the keys to winning those matchups?
COACH PETERSEN: We play all season with a bunch of one-on-one matchups anyways. That’s a little bit of our style. But I think when you look at this offense and the points that they score, it’s because they’re not one dimensional. They can run the ball. The quarterback can run the ball. The quarterback can scramble with the ball.
They’ve got an awesome running back, and they have three or four really good receivers and they spread the ball around. There’s not, well, we’ve got to take this guy out of the game plan and we’re good. They all catch about the same amount of balls and so this is a tough offense to defend. We’ll have our hands full, and everybody has had their hands full all year. So it will be a different challenge that we haven’t seen.
Q. In talking to a couple of the players, especially the seniors the last couple of days, they’ve talked about the differences between when you first came in the Cactus Bowl, for instance, and now today. They felt like back then maybe there was a little bit more play, it was more things. But now they feel like it’s a lot more dialed in, maybe it’s a lot more fired up and a lot more involved and focused in the game plan. Did last year’s playoff, did that maybe subtly change any of your thinking about how some of these bigger games were approached?
COACH PETERSEN: I don’t think so. I always think every game is kind of unique in terms of making sure the kids’ energy is right; that they just have the right energy. And we worry about that every game during the season.
And not every game is the same. And you’re trying really to get at that peak performance, that performance anxiety curve we always talk about where it’s not too high and not too low. And most of the time we’re right on. And a few times we’ve been off for whatever reason.
And we’ve talked about this a lot, but I think it’s hard every week to show up with that “best.” And our kids know it.
We talk about it all the time. But sometimes it just feels different.
So you come to a game like this and you’ve worked really hard — I’ve been to games where we’ve worked really hard and thought our preparation was great, and we’ve come out and it’s, like, did we work too hard? Did we leave it on the practice field?
And so I think as coaches you’re always trying to figure out what the right balance is. And as coaches you’re always thinking we need one more rep, we need to spend a little bit more time, it’s not right. And I think sometimes that can work against you. So we’re always paying attention to getting those guys with the right energy, the right mentality. And when you’re grinding away for a long time, I think, it’s easier said than done.
Q. When you look back across your career, how does the bowl game affect the period after, like winter workouts leading to spring football? Does a win or loss affect the mood of the program for the couple months after that, or is it just a one-off that doesn’t really carry into your offseason prep?
COACH PETERSEN: You know, we try to, win or lose, we try to go back to reset and start over. But I know this: As awesome as this week is and this couple weeks have been in terms of our preparation, it is very painful and there’s not a lot of good memories when you don’t come here and win bowl games.
So there’s a lot of time and energy and money and all those things spent here. And you don’t win that last game, it’s really, really hard. I think there’s kind of a sour taste in your mouth. So it’s important, I know on both sides to win this game.
Q. On Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
COACH PETERSEN: He’s a guy that can put his pads down, he kind of looks like a power back, but he’s really like a speed back. He’s most dangerous when you don’t contain him, and he gets on edges and he gets in the open field he’s going to run away from everybody. That’s what makes him so different. Maybe the back at USC, Ronald Jones, he’s kind of a big, fast guy. We didn’t play those guys this year.