Huskies manage to score only one touchdown in six red-zone trips against Auburn.
ATLANTA — A dozen reporters and three cameramen huddled around Jake Browning, who was seated in a folding chair on a foot-tall stage, a black curtain hanging behind him. This was in a back room in the basement of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, cold and stale and unflatteringly lit in its white florescent glare.
The last Washington player to arrive for postgame interviews, Browning wore a gray T-shirt and black warmup pants, his right knee wrapped in an ice pack. This particular room was new, but the stage and the questions and the shoulder-slumped posture were all familiar for the Huskies’ senior quarterback.
The No. 6 Huskies lost to No. 9 Auburn, 21-16, on Saturday. In a game billed as the most important opener in program history, this was Washington’s chance, its best chance, to come into the heart of SEC country and win back the Pac-12’s long-lost national credibility, and for Browning to break through when it really mattered.
Those things didn’t happen, and, well, where does this leave the Huskies now? When will they have another shot to show they truly belong among the nation’s elite?
“I don’t really know,” UW coach Chris Petersen said, “and I really don’t care. I just really don’t. I mean, I don’t know how to say it any different. I mean, it was Game 1 against a good opponent, coming across the country, hostile territory. Kids battled hard. We’ll just see where our team goes from here. It’s a long season. Had we won, I’d feel exactly the same. Exactly the same.”
Browning sounded much the same as he did after big-game losses to Alabama and Penn State the past two seasons. Of course it’s not entirely fair for him, and any one individual, to take the brunt of a loss in a game with so many moving parts, with so many different actors, but that’s the burden he wears. And one he owned again Saturday.
Whether they were his fault or not, Browning accepted blame for many of the missed opportunities in the red zone against Auburn. After a slow start, the Huskies offense — featuring two first-time starters on the offensive line — got into the red zone three times in the third quarter but managed to score just three points on those three drives.
And of their six red-zone trips overall, only one resulted in a touchdown (on Quinten Pounds’ improbable one-handed catch from Browning late in the second quarter).
“In the red zone, it comes down to attention to detail and we missed some of those details,” Browning said. “I missed some stuff and across the board that’s obviously where we lost the game. We had no problem getting to the red zone.”
Browning threw for 296 yards and the one TD throw to Pounds. He threw one first-half interception — a poor decision; he should have thrown it away — and he lost a fumble when he was hit from behind while trying to pitch to Salvon Ahmed on a speed option at the Auburn 3-yard line. Auburn recovered.
“We tried to get too cute on that situation,” offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan said.
Said Browning: “I just have to take the loss there and kick the easy field goal. The turnover killed us.”
He was sacked five times, including back-to-back sacks on the Huskies’ final two snaps, on a third-and-13 play and a fourth-and-16 play. (And, really, who has a fourth-and-16 that they feel good about?)
Browning limped off after that final play and into the sideline medical tent. About that ice pack on his knee postgame?
“I’m fine,” he said.
Hamdan was quick to defend his senior QB.
“I can’t speak highly enough about how we thought he played and his toughness and hanging in there and doing what he did,” he said. “This one’s hard.”
Hamdan bemoaned the missed chances, too. Before really commenting he wanted to watch the replay of the third-quarter “pick play” that negated Browning’s TD pass to Aaron Fuller. UW receiver Andre Baccellia was flagged for offensive pass interference after colliding into the Auburn defender matched up on Fuller.
The penalty pushed the Huskies back 15 yards and redshirt freshman kicker Peyton Henry, in his UW debut, wound up missing badly from 40 yards. He made his other three kicks Saturday, from 31, 28 and 30 yards, the last one bouncing off the right upright and through to give the Huskies a 16-15 lead early in the fourth quarter.
More missed chances: In his breakout game — seven catches, 135 yards, both career highs — Fuller also had a drop at the Auburn 25-yard line on UW’s final drive.
And UW’s defense, otherwise stout in the second half, on third-and-nine forgot about Auburn tight end Chandler Cox, who hauled in a 12-yard catch to extend the drive that ended with JaTarvious Whitlow’s go-ahead touchdown run with 6:15 left.
“This one hurts, man,” Hamdan said. “Because there’s just too many opportunities for touchdowns that turned into field goals. In that third quarter, there was an opportunity to go and get it — and we didn’t get it.”