Last offseason, a sign was posted on the wall inside Washington’s locker room. It featured four words, a message so simple it was impossible to misinterpret:
WIN THE BOWL GAME
For these Huskies, the impetus was obvious. Entering the 2019 season, Chris Petersen’s program had dropped three consecutive bowl games: the 2016 Peach Bowl to Alabama (24-7), the 2017 Fiesta Bowl to Penn State (35-28) and the Rose Bowl to Ohio State (28-23) after last season. Banner seasons were tainted by “almosts.” Seniors were sent out with deflating disappointments.
This time around, the circumstances have shifted. Instead of a New Year’s Six showcase, Washington (7-5) limps into a Las Vegas Bowl matchup with 12-1 Boise State on Saturday. It’s not a playoff semifinal or a New Year’s institution, preceded by a parade. It’s not an opportunity for the Pac-12 to prove much of anything. And, as for pageantry? The game’s name has changed 11 times in its 27-year run.
But the sign still hangs, and its message still resonates — in large part because of Petersen. On Dec. 2, Washington’s sixth-year coach told his team that he will step down after the bowl game. Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake will take over as the Huskies’ new head coach. Senior center Nick Harris said Saturday that “obviously it was emotional. Everybody is obviously super attached to coach Pete. But at the end of the day, he has to do what’s best for him and has to take himself into consideration, because he’s always taking everybody else into consideration.”
So now, when it comes to motivation, the Huskies need only consider the sign. Flush the circumstances. Forget the past. Disregard the distractions.
Win the bowl game.
“That (message) has kind of always been in the back of our minds with the season kind of winding down,” junior defensive back Elijah Molden said. “And with (Petersen) announcing that to the team, now it’s in the front of our minds. I think it’s something that we got to do. It would be a crime if we didn’t.”
That task will be considerably more difficult, considering the Huskies’ sudden subtractions. Junior tight end Hunter Bryant and senior left tackle Trey Adams — both first-team All-Pac-12 performers — have decided not to play to preserve their health ahead of the 2020 NFL draft. Still, redshirt junior quarterback Jacob Eason said that “I respect those guys. They put in a lot of hard work — blood, sweat and tears for this university. Trey and Hunter have both individually done great things here and done a lot for this team and sacrificed a lot. We still love them to death. It’s their personal decision, and there’s no hard feelings at all.”
Despite those dual decisions, Washington will still be well represented in Las Vegas. Eason, Molden, Harris, defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike, running back Salvon Ahmed, cornerback Keith Taylor and safety Myles Bryant could all conceivably be selected in April’s NFL draft. And all of them are expected to play against Boise State.
“Everyone has their own decision and their own personal choices for health reasons and all that,” Eason said. “I’ve just been wanting to finish the things I start and felt like we started this season and we have to finish it, no matter what the case is. I’m excited and ready to go have fun on Saturday.”
Added Harris: “It did not cross my mind at all (to not play). I want to finish this thing right and go out with a bang.”
And, to some degree, he wants to do that for Petersen — who took a chance and offered a scholarship to an undersized, unheralded three-star offensive lineman in 2016.
“It’s an honor (to play for him), honestly,” Harris said. “I know it sounds cheesy, but in retrospect he was probably one of the best college football coaches of all time and his stats speak for themselves. The people he’s built speaks for itself. The things he teaches and preaches to us, the values that he puts into us over and over, letting us know these things, it goes way beyond football, with the impact he’s had on so many football players here and wherever he was before.
“So it’s an honor and I’m just glad he gave me a chance to come here.”
Like Harris, Eason is still here — but for how much longer? The former Lake Stevens standout produced an inconsistent 2019 season — completing 63.8% of his passes while throwing for 2,922 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. When asked Saturday about his NFL draft decision, Eason said that “right now I’m just focused on Boise State and playing the (Las) Vegas Bowl.”
But he also expressed confidence in the program’s outlook under Lake.
“We all think he’s ready for this next step,” Eason said. “He’s been a tremendous force on the defensive side for us and I think that’s going to translate well into a head coach. He’s one of those guys who’s super respectable and we can learn a lot from. So I think with this program, there’s going to be no drop-off from coach Pete to coach Lake. I think they’re both tremendous coaches and they both bring a lot to the table.”
And, for one more game, they’ll coexist on the same staff. While Lake has spent much of the past two weeks visiting recruits on the road, Petersen has continued to organize his program’s bowl preparations. Harris said that “we’re just rolling. Nothing’s really changed, because he’s still in command. He’s still coaching. It’s not like he’s not here. He’s running practice. He’s in his office. He’s talking to me. Nothing’s changed. It’s still the same. He just told us what his situation’s going to be, but nothing’s changed.”
Yet. The Huskies know that change is coming, as imminent and inevitable as a Seattle summer sunrise. But before it comes, they can make a change of their own. They can heed the sign and beat the Broncos. No excuses.
Win the bowl game.
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