The statistics speak more loudly than any specific word.
In Washington’s 20-14 defeat at Colorado last weekend, the erratic Husky offense went three-and-out in four of its first five possessions, with the only outlier ending in a Jacob Eason red zone interception. UW gained 91 total yards in the first half, including 10 rushing yards and 0.7 yards per carry. Eason was sacked four times.
In a season that has included a parade of dropped passes against California, a physical thrashing on “The Farm” against Stanford and back-to-back pick-sixes against Utah and Oregon State, this was a new, undeniably ugly offensive low. Despite a bye week to prepare, and a statistically inferior opposing defense, Chris Petersen said Monday that his team “just kind of got whipped up front.”
But that wasn’t even his most alarming assertion.
“I thought there was a little bit of panic that went on,” UW’s sixth-year head coach said in his weekly news conference. “We had so many three-and-outs and we couldn’t get into a rhythm in the first half, and I think that’s what happens sometimes when we can’t get something going. (Colorado) holds the ball and they’re driving and we’re kind of on our heels.
“We just had way too many three-and-outs, and I think that changes the chemistry and the mojo, for sure.”
Panic? Against a 4-6 team that allowed at least 30 points in its first nine games? Against an opponent UW was favored to beat by two touchdowns? Against a first-year head coach, in a sparsely filled stadium?
Yes, Petersen said “panic” — at first. A moment later, he reconsidered.
“I’m not sure if that’s the right word,” he continued. “But I know it’s very unsettling (when you go three-and-out) and there’s a tendency to press a little bit more. I think the good teams can just shake it off and reload and go make a play, and we haven’t been able to do that.
“We need to get into a rhythm, and when we do it’s like, ‘OK, why can’t this go on at all times?’ That’s the thing that’s been perplexing and a little frustrating.”
Good teams can shake it off and reload, but that’s just it: the 2019 Washington Huskies are not a good team. They’re a talented team that has fallen far short of expectations. A good team would have exposed dreadful defenses on the road at Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado. A good team would have established an offensive identity in, say, September.
And, yes, a good team would not have allowed one three-and-out to infect its collective psyche on the road at Colorado.
So, is that a coaching problem, a preparation problem, a leadership problem (or all of the above)? And, regarding the latter, could Eason be doing more?
“I don’t put that on him. He’s the new guy,” Petersen said. “Jacob, the one thing I know about him, he’s an awesome kid. That kid, if a guy drops a pass, protection’s not right, game doesn’t go well, he doesn’t even kind of point fingers. That is not him at all.
“I think his leadership is fine. I think he’s grown this year as a leader. I think of the guys that have been around here a long time (as having that responsibility). I know he’s the quarterback and all those things, but I think he’s done a nice job and I think he’s grown in that department.”
Still, the Husky offense’s collective growth has been head-scratchingly uneven. In a three-game stretch against Arizona, Oregon and Utah, Eason threw for an average of 282.7 yards a game, with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. The Huskies averaged 36.7 points per game along the way. It wasn’t perfect, but it seemed like progress.
And in the two games since, against a pair of the Pac-12’s worst passing defenses, UW’s aerial offense has inexplicably regressed.
“Sometimes it’s on the protection,” Petersen said. “Sometimes it’s on the wideouts not making a play. Sometimes it’s on the QB, where the ball’s not as accurate as it should be or going the wrong direction. It’s a little bit of all of those things.
“When we do get into a rhythm, when we do stay on the field, we can be pretty darn productive and good at times. We had long drives (against Colorado), which I always say is really hard to do. We’d like to be more explosive. It’s hard to go 12 and 15 plays and score touchdowns.”
It’s also hard to win when you score only 14 points on the road. UW almost certainly will need more than that Friday against a Washington State team that has posted 103 points in its past two games.
And sure, Washington will have plenty of opportunities against a Cougar defense that is currently allowing 37.3 points a game in Pac-12 play. WSU also ranks dead last in the conference in opponent yards per carry (4.98) and 11th in total defense (467.2 yards allowed) and opponent yards per pass attempt (8.8). The Husky offense should produce … as long as it doesn’t panic (or, for Petersen’s sake, become suddenly “unsettled”).
There will be adversity on Friday. How will Eason and Co. respond?
- Monday, junior Hunter Bryant was named one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which honors college football’s premier tight end. The other finalists are Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant and Miami’s Brevin Jordan. In 11 games this season, the 6-foot-2, 239-pound Bryant has caught 46 passes for 729 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 15.8 yards per reception.
- Petersen said Monday that starting right guard Jaxson Kirkland, who left the Colorado game with what appeared to be a leg injury, is “all right. I will tell you this: it’s not a serious injury. We’ll see if we get him there (against Washington State).”
- Despite technically playing in his first two games of the season against Oregon State and Colorado, junior wide receiver Ty Jones — who led UW with six touchdown catches last season — has yet to be targeted or figure heavily in the offense. Why? “He’s working in on certain things,” Petersen said. “I’m a broken record on this: guys have to put it together in practice. They have to earn the reps over somebody else. Nothing is handed here. This is a meritocracy. That’s how it is. You’ve got to earn your stripes. He’d been out for most of the year. Other guys were playing. So we are trying to get him more involved, but it’s got to show up in practice. He’s been doing well, but not necessarily over the other guys to say, ‘Hey, this guy needs to go in over the other guys.’”
- Petersen confirmed Monday he has not spent much time with WSU head coach Mike Leach since the Apple Cup last season. Still, Petersen — at least, publicly — harbors no ill will toward his Apple Cup adversary. “It’s hard on rivalry week because everyone wants to hate the other coach,” Petersen said. “I’m like you guys: I get a kick out of him for a while, and then I’ve got to walk away, because he can hold the mic for a long, long time.”