The question came in the closing minutes of Chris Petersen’s Monday news conference.
“When you compare this game to the Cal game, are there similarities that you see in terms of the way you got beat?”
Washington’s sixth-year head coach turned his head, stared into the distance and inhaled deeply. Three seconds elapsed.
“Well. Ummmm,” he said, shifting in his seat.
Nearly five more seconds elapsed.
“We didn’t win,” Petersen concluded, providing an anticlimactic answer. “Like, (we needed to) throw the ball better. You know, those two things.”
It isn’t hard to find a third.
In 10 Pac-12 games last season, Washington’s defense allowed an average of 117.1 rushing yards and 3.63 yards per carry.
In three Pac-12 tilts this fall — a 20-19 loss to Cal, a 28-14 win over USC and a 23-13 loss to Stanford — UW is surrendering 197.7 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry.
Of course, that dramatic decline also contains a tiny bit of deception. In the USC win, Jimmy Lake and Co. were determined to limit the Trojans’ air raid passing attack, which allowed for 212 rushing yards and 6.4 yards per carry. But what about last weekend? Why was a Stanford offense featuring a backup quarterback and three freshman offensive linemen able to amass 189 rushing yards and 4.4 yards per carry? Why could fifth-year senior Cameron Scarlett barrel through bodies for a career-high 151 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry and a score? Why did Scarlett pile up three separate 18-yard runs?
At the point of attack, Washington ran out of answers.
“I thought we played well in terms of the fit. We were where we needed to be,” said defensive-line coach Ikaika Malloe. “I think just the finish part, the execution part — whether it’s not getting off the block in time, or making the tackle — that’s where we failed. Personally, that’s where I failed — making sure that when they get to the ball that they can finish the play.”
Added inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory: “It was all fundamentals. It was not tackling properly, not getting off blocks. They did a better job up front than we did.”
When Gregory says “they,” he’s referring to Stanford. But the same could be said both of Cal and USC. Stanford and USC, specifically, produced season-highs in rushing yards against the suddenly vulnerable UW defense.
If Arizona does the same on Saturday, it’ll be a nightmarish night in the desert. The 4-1 Wildcats currently lead the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns (12) and rank second in rushing offense (221 yards per game) and yards per carry (5.67). Standout senior Khalil Tate, specifically, sits fifth nationally in quarterback yards per carry (7.25) and ninth in rushing yards per game (65.25).
“I mean, he is something else. He really is,” Petersen said. “He can run like nobody I’ve seen in quite a long time playing quarterback. He creates a lot of issues with his feet and has a really strong arm. He can sit on his back foot and throw it 60 yards down the field, or he can scramble around and flick it across the field. It’s all that kind of stuff.”
And it isn’t just Tate, either. Three Wildcat running backs — Gary Brightwell, J.J. Taylor and Dante Smith — have rushed for at least 186 yards and 5.9 yards per carry.
The Husky defense knows what Arizona plans to do. That doesn’t mean they’ll be able to stop it.
“Obviously they’re going to run the ball, because they saw what happened (against Stanford) last week. There were plays that we were exposed on,” Malloe said. “Then on top of that you’ve got a quarterback who can hurt you both with his arm and his legs. So we’re trying to keep him in the pocket and trying to get him uncomfortable at the same time.”
That’s easier said (and written, and printed, and preached) than done. Aside from Tate’s running acumen, the 215-pound senior is also excelling with his arm in 2019. In a 35-30 win at Colorado last weekend, Tate completed 31 of 41 passes for 404 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Gregory said that “he looks like an NFL quarterback to me.”
Tate’s legs buy time, and then his arm takes over.
“He’s one of the better ones I’ve seen in a long time,” Malloe said. “He has great awareness. He can see through his peripheral vision. So he’s constantly looking downfield. He has the ability to run, so people play him safely (schematically). Then he can throw the ball. You see him scramble and throw 70-yarders, and then all of a sudden he takes off and runs an 80-yarder. So he has a threat on both ends.
“It’s not like you’re going to say, ‘Well, let’s handicap him and make him do one thing.’ You really don’t want him to do either. So our job is to try to make him uncomfortable as much as possible, keep him in the pocket and have him move around in the pocket, and then stop the run.”
The Huskies haven’t done the latter in Pac-12 play so far this season. Greg Gaines and Ben Burr-Kirven are gone, and a young, fundamentally inconsistent defense has repeatedly failed to finish at the point of attack.
At this stage, the questions are obvious.
The answers? Not so much.
“All 11 guys have to do their job,” Lake said. “This is a guy (in Tate) that we can cover the initial route and then he can start scrambling around, hurt us with his legs. Or he can scramble around, buy more time for his wideouts to get downfield, and then launch it up.
“He’s as fast a quarterback as we’re going to see this year. He’s probably got the strongest arm that we’re going to see this year. This is the highest scoring offense in our conference. We have an awesome challenge ahead of us on Saturday.”