STANFORD, Calif. — The Washington Huskies’ passing game is broken.
That fact was evident at 10:48 p.m. Saturday night as Chris Petersen’s Huskies trudged in a sad procession toward the southeast tunnel at Stanford Stadium. As they did, the public address announcer boomed, “When the eastern part of the country wakes up in the morning, they’ll see the final score: Stanford 23, Washington 13!”
Senior wide receiver Aaron Fuller walked with his helmet on, head down, his once-white jersey now stained various shades of green and red. The jersey, in this case, was a visual receipt; it spoke silently, but unmistakably, reflecting Fuller’s substantial role in the Husky offense.
Terrell Bynum’s jersey was clean.
Andre Baccellia’s jersey was clean.
Quinten Pounds’ jersey was clean.
Marquis Spiker’s jersey was clean.
Austin Osborne’s jersey was clean.
Puka Nacua’s jersey was clean.
They either didn’t receive an opportunity, or failed to take advantage when they did.
Indeed, the 5-foot-11, 188-pound Fuller was targeted a whopping 17 times Saturday night, and he turned in nine catches (and at least three drops) for 171 yards, with a long of 37.
Otherwise, UW’s remaining wide receivers combined for an utterly incompetent two catches for 10 yards … which all came in the fourth quarter. No other Husky pass-catcher was targeted more than five times on the night. Junior tight end Hunter Bryant caught just one pass for 8 yards and dropped a pair of passes that would have extended drives on third down.
Junior quarterback Jacob Eason, meanwhile, completed all five of his pass attempts for 56 yards and a touchdown in his team’s torrid opening drive.
He completed 11 of 31 passes for 150 yards and an interception, while being sacked twice, the rest of the way.
It’s been written before, but it suddenly bears repeating: entering the game, Stanford’s defense ranked 127th nationally in opponent completion percentage (70.6), 126th in opponent pass efficiency rating (170.60), 124th in opponent yards per attempt (9.4), 115th in passing defense (287.4 yards a game) and 111th in touchdown passes allowed (11).
So, how did this happen? Or, as Petersen was asked in the postgame news conference, “What needs to change to get the passing game going?”
“That’s a good question. That’s a good question,” he repeated. “(There were) dropped balls, and we’ve got to give our quarterback more answers, too. I know a couple times he was standing back there without answers.
“But you couple that with little protection stuff and he’s running around, and a couple guys didn’t make plays for him. And when you’re not going to get the ball a bunch, you better capitalize.”
Here’s what not-getting-the-ball-a-bunch looks like: Baccellia, UW’s senior starter opposite Fuller, has excelled in three nonconference games — posting 13 catches, 195 receiving yards, 15 yards per reception and a pair of touchdowns.
But in three games against Pac-12 competition, he has been rendered utterly ineffective, managing just six catches — two per game — for 41 yards and 6.8 yards per reception. Still, the coaching staff has (perhaps stubbornly) stuck with him. Saturday, he contributed one essentially irrelevant catch for a single yard on five targets.
Senior wide receiver Chico McClatcher, meanwhile, has not caught a pass since the 52-20 victory over Hawaii on Sept. 14. Nacua — a 6-1, 204-pound former four-star freshman — has been targeted a grand total of one time this season, and he turned that target into a picturesque 28-yard touchdown. And it’s not that Puka isn’t playing, either; the highly touted freshman receiver just rarely runs a route. Most often, he enters the game, blocks for a running play and then immediately exits again. This begs the obvious question: they burned his redshirt so he could block?
As for the trio of talented former four-star redshirt freshmen, Austin Osborne has recorded one catch for minus-2 yards this season. Spiker — who holds the California state prep record with 72 receiving touchdowns — has played in three games without earning a target, and 182-pound speedster Trey Lowe has been sidelined for the first six games with an infection.
Petersen often has repeated that those who practice most consistently will earn opportunities in games. But, if Fuller and Baccellia are so much better than everybody else, isn’t that also an issue? If players as presumably talented as Nacua, Osborne and Spiker all can’t earn a target in a lopsided 10-point defeat, who’s really to blame?
When asked if UW’s pass game woes can be traced to personnel and an inability to get open, Petersen said, “I think it’s everything. We’ll look at the tape there. But like I said, I know a couple times we’ve just got to cut our losses. (Eason) threw a couple good balls in there that we didn’t make plays on. We’ve got to do a better job, there’s no question, in the pass game.”
In three nonconference games, Eason has completed 77.5% of his passes, throwing for 901 yards and 10 touchdowns with one interception (while being sacked just once).
Meanwhile, in three Pac-12 contests, the former Lake Stevens High School standout has completed just 54.3% of his passes, throwing for 548 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions (while being sacked seven times).
In Eason, Washington touts perhaps the Pac-12’s (and the nation’s?) most talented physical passer. And yet, the Huskies rank sixth in the conference in passing touchdowns (11), seventh in completion percentage (65.8), eighth in yards per attempt (8.1) and pass efficiency rating (150.4) and ninth in passing offense (248.8 yards a game).
Too often, Eason has stood in the backfield without any answers. Perhaps that’s play-calling. Perhaps it’s personnel, or coaching, or preparation, or all of the above. With UW’s next three Pac-12 games coming against 4-1 Arizona, 4-1 Oregon and 4-1 Utah, Petersen and Co., have precious little time to improve their suddenly incompetent passing attack.
The Huskies’ jerseys were clean on Saturday night.
Their execution was anything but.