Huskies 10 points from unbeaten but a big disappointment

Jennifer Buchanan photo

UW has lost momentum, needs to get it back

The Washington football team is 10 points from being unbeaten, but the sky has fallen. After a third defeat in nine games—the losses have been by 5, 3 and 2 points—it almost seems as if the Huskies’ season came to a crashing halt last weekend at California.

It all began with national championship talk and a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press poll. It hit a low point with the Huskies oddly replacing a veteran quarterback, the 2016 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, with a redshirt freshman who had played only a quarter against North Dakota in a blowout. It likely will end in some December bowl game that no UW player feels good about.

So what happened?

Three things: Most noticeably, Jake Browning regressed; a defense lauded for its potential has badly lost the turnover battle; and, finally, one-third of the lineup is injured. It's that simple.

Let’s address the most visible position on the football field first: Quarterback. No matter who or how many of his teammates got hurt—now seven starters and counting, plus a couple of key reserves—it was time for Browning to cap off a UW career unparalleled for quarterback endurance and record-book entries with a moment in the sun. Rather than use his service time to his advantage, Browning often looked like Jake Haener—a rookie making rookie mistakes. For all the good things he’s done, beating Colorado for the 2016 league title and demolishing Stanford and Oregon that same year, he couldn’t step out of his element and win one against the college game’s big boys: Alabama, Auburn and Penn State.

He couldn't rescue this season either. The fact that Chris Petersen inserted Haener at such a crucial point in last weekend’s game at Cal exposed Browning’s ongoing struggles in real time. After all, the Huskies were ahead 7-6 in the third quarter. Yet Petersen got impatient and unintentionally gave a game away when the back-up QB threw a pick-six on his fifth play running the show.

Petersen, when pushed for a reason for yanking Browning, was asked if his senior had shown any improvement this season. His answer was the closest the coach ever veers to criticism.

“I don’t know about better,” Petersen said. “I think he does some things better. I think sometimes the numbers can be a little bit deceiving when you got a new coordinator and you put some spins on those type of things.”

The coach’s impulsive move risked losing the trust of some of his veteran players by not staying the course as he often demands of them. And face it, they already know Haener won’t be the starter next season when former Georgia starter Jacob Eason becomes eligible and gives the Huskies a legitimate pro prospect at quarterback for the first time since Jake Locker left.

The Huskies defense is filled with honors candidates. Yet it has underperformed. Great stop units create havoc and rip the ball away. These guys have just three interceptions, only two by members of a vaunted secondary expected to provide lockdown coverage, and a mere four fumble recoveries. Junior free safety Taylor Rapp has been the only one in the back row who has maintained a high level of play all season. Sophomore cornerback Byron Murphy has gotten beat and not played up to his reputation. Senior cornerback Jordan Miller is injured. Junior nickel back Myles Bryant has no picks. Senior strong safety JoJo McIntosh has been unusually quiet.

Linebacker has been the strength of this unit behind senior Ben Burr-Kirven’s exceptional season. Linebacker also represents the Huskies’ most worrisome position for next year. They can’t keep D.J. Beavers healthy and, while making this position a recruiting priority in recent years, they’ve missed badly in restocking it with a game-breaking player. They signed Camilo Eifler as a four-star recruit and the headliner of the 2016 class but he didn't play as advertised and ended up transferring to Illinois. Five-star linebacker recruit Ale Kaho, the jewel of the 2018 class, couldn’t get into the UW academically after taking part in a summer of workouts in Seattle and transferred to Alabama, where’s he appeared in every game.

Let’s finish with the hospital chart. The Huskies have lost Trey Adams, Hunter Bryant, Myles Gaskin and Jared Hilbers on offense, and Shane Bowman, Beavers and Miller on the defensive side, all starters. Seven regulars. That’s a lot of manpower to give up, in fact far too much talent to sit down.

Adams, when healthy, is a first-team, All-Pac-12 player at left tackle and a potential first-round draft pick. His absence has contributed to the offensive falloff, taking away the Huskies’ ability to run at will at times. Would Gaskin, the UW’s all-time leading rusher, have stayed healthy had Adams done the same and served as his personal bodyguard for the past nine weeks? Would Browning be a better quarterback with Adams and Bryant in the huddle with him at all times?

Against Cal, the UW started junior Henry Roberts at left tackle in the absence of Hilbers, Adams’ replacement, which meant the Huskies basically went with a third-teamer.

Looking way down the road—beyond the Sun Bowl or wherever the Huskies spend the holidays—Adams could return next season as he attempts to regain his health and reputation and regenerate considerable sums of NFL money as an elite blocker. Hunter Bryant is a serious talent who, when healthy, plays like a hybrid tight end and wide receiver, and can make any quarterback look good.

Gaskin’s eventual graduation will drop the running game down a notch, which means future play-calling will come at a premium. New offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan’s play selection hasn’t exactly excited the masses. Case in point, Hamdan called for a reverse with Salvon Ahmed on first-and-goal at the Cal 9 late in the game, and the play lost 10 yards. This coach still needs to win over people, which might include a few returning quarterbacks.

The Huskies have four games left to play, counting a bowl invitation, and they likely will lose at least once more. They won’t enter 2019 with the hype they carried into this season. As a program, they’ve lost some momentum.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for Chris Petersen’s program—just 10 points from being unbeaten but sliding into obscurity to close this season—to get it back.