With a 35-7 statement win vs. No. 20 BYU, the Huskies emphatically proved they still may have a chance to have a national presence come January.
The Huskies had been workmanlike. The Huskies had been efficient and sometimes opportunistic, intermittently dazzling, not to mention occasionally frustrating and inconsistent.
But what they hadn’t been, in this season that still sizzles with promise, is dominating (and, no, North Dakota doesn’t count). In their first four games, they had provided scant evidence they were as good as they needed to be to get where they wanted to get.
That lapse ended on Saturday night at Husky Stadium in a 35-7 dismantling of Brigham Young University. Against a very good, very physical, very tricky Cougar team, the Huskies were in complete control, start to finish, offense and defense, a resounding statement delivered loudly and clearly.
“I thought we were primed and ready for a breakout performance,’’ said quarterback Jake Browning.
This is the game Washington needed, that its season had been crying out for. This is the game that hints the Huskies could still have a national presence before all is done.
“You want to have a game like this where by the third quarter you feel pretty good about it and you can start rotating guys in,’’ said linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.
The road ahead is still steep and difficult, but this effort, against a BYU team ranked 20th and owning a win over then-No. 6 Wisconsin, should reignite the Husky hype.
After the season-opening loss to Auburn, it had slowed to a trickle. This one warranted a torrent, marred only by a troubling lapse in the kicking game (two missed field goals), and a fumbled punt by Chico McClatcher late in the game that led to BYU’s only score with 41 seconds remaining.
We could start anywhere, but let’s begin with Browning, who gave a performance even his detractors would have to acknowledge bordered on flawless: 23-of-25 passing for 277 yards, with one touchdown pass and another touchdown run.
“I’m really fired up for him,’’ said offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan. “That’s the guy.”
“That’s the Jake we see all the time,’’ elaborated coach Chris Petersen. “I think when the offensive line blocks like they do and he can sit back there and really look at things, he’s a hard guy to stop.”
Or as center Nick Harris put it: “We give that guy time, he’s going to throw the ball perfectly.”
That’s nearly literal. If a couple of Husky receivers had held onto a ball that caromed from one to the other in the end zone in the fourth quarter, Browning would have tied the NCAA record for completion percentage in a game. As it was, he set a Husky record for single-game completion percentage with a minimum of 20 pass attempts.
That meant, of course, his protection was ironclad. It’s amazing how good a QB looks when he has time to assess and dissect, particularly one with the savvy of Browning. He was poised, decisive and even elusive in a 9-yard TD run.
It also meant the running game was clicking (187 rushing yards, with Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed sharing the load), which Petersen said was the key to the whole thing.
“We’re on the blueprint of where we want to be on offense more and more each week,’’ Browning said.
As impressive as the offense was, the defense might have been better. The fumble cost them the shutout, but they completely stymied a BYU offense with a running game that thrives on misdirection and what Husky defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake called “smoke and mirrors.”
A BYU team noted for its physicality was out-physicaled by the Huskies. A deceptive, tricky offense neither deceived nor tricked them. When Burr-Kirven both forced and recovered a fumble (a feat that’s becoming routine for him) late in the first half to set up a Husky TD, “that was game-changing right there,” Petersen said.
Heading into the fourth quarter, BYU had a net of 13 yards rushing.
“They had to go deeper into their playbook and eventually they had to throw the ball a lot more than they wanted, and that was story of the game,’’ Burr-Kirven said.
Added Lake: “We approached this like an option offense, like we were facing an Army, Navy, Georgia Tech-type offense. We really focused on everyone doing their job and don’t look at the smoke and mirrors. You have this gap, play this gap. If you’re supposed to be outside the receiver and set the edge, you set the edge.
“We had enough bodies to play the sweep one way and the dive the other way. As long as everyone did their job, we felt we were going to be in pretty good shape. It takes a ton of discipline. I’m really proud of the guys doing their job.”
Did Petersen see this breakout coming? He said he thinks it’s coming every week, but when he saw the energy with which the Huskies came out, he had a good feeling.
“We’re splitting hairs sometimes, and that’s all it takes,” he said. “You get a little luck and a little momentum, and a lot of hard play, good things can happen.”
And just in time for the Huskies.