The scene proved unforgettable, shocking and disastrous all in one—Washington senior quarterback Jake Browning getting informed that he was benched against California near the end of the third quarter.
A clearly annoyed Browning, a four-year starter and two years removed from being selected Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, was seen mouthing the word “why?” Huskies coach Chris Petersen, always Browning’s biggest defender against fan or media backlash, felt he had said enough and turned his attention to the field. It was that abrupt and impersonal.
Five plays later, everyone watched as Browning’s replacement, redshirt freshman Jake Haener, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and the deciding points in a stunning 12-10 loss to the Golden Bears Saturday in Berkeley. It was an incredible turn of events, beginning with the quarterback change and ending with the pass theft.
“We could not get anything going on offense,” Petersen explained of the radical move. “I was just trying to spark something. I just wanted him to look at things.”
Instead, the fifth-year UW coach inadvertently may have turned a season that began with national championship hopes into one that has bottomed out in a big way. Certainly the Browning era—filled with record-breaking performances and his once untouchable role as the offensive leader—carries a huge blemish on it.
The sideline drama began with the Huskies leading 7-6 and taking possession on their 11 following a Cal punt. Just 1:56 remained in the third quarter. Haener, who hadn’t played since the second game of the season in a blowout against North Dakota, handed off twice for 12 yards and a first down, threw an incompletion and handed off once more before he made a fateful mistake.
Facing a third-and-8 situation at the Huskies 25, Haener set up in the pocket and drilled one over the middle for Andre Baccellia. He didn’t see Cal linebacker Evan Weaver, a Spokane product who reached high for the interception and then rambled 37 yards to score, extending the ball over the left pylon and enabling him to gloat some when it was over.
“We really took it to them the whole game and they couldn’t respond,” Weaver said.
Haener played one more series early in the fourth quarter but the damage was done for the 15th-ranked Huskies (6-3 overall, 4-2 Pac-12). Neither the youngster nor Browning, who returned to the huddle, could pull this one out and prevent Justin Wilcox, a former UW linebackers coach, from earning a signature victory as the second-year head coach of the Golden Bears (5-3, 2-3).
“This is huge,” Wilcox said. “It gives validation to everything we’re doing.”
On the other hand, the Huskies will be questioning themselves in a big way for some time. They were 11-point favorites coming in but couldn't put away a supposedly overmatched opponent. They played without seven starters and no longer resemble the top 10 team they had been for much of the season.
Left tackle Henry Roberts and cornerback Keith Taylor made their first career starts against Cal, filling in for Jared Hilbers and Jordan Miller, respectively. Miller has a leg injury but the reason for Hilbers’ absence wasn’t readily clear. All-time leading rusher Myles Gaskin and talented tight end Hunter Bryant, dealing with shoulder and knee injuries, suited up and went through warm-ups but didn’t play.
Washington looked ready to run up a lot of points on Cal on its first possession, marching 64 yards in 14 plays for Browning’s 3-yard touchdown throw to Ty Jones and a 7-0 lead. The well-executed drive took six minutes and 22 seconds off the clock. However, the Huskies inexplicably struggled thereafter, adding only a 26-yard field goal by Peyton Henry with 4:51 left in the game and nothing more.
“We’re not executing well enough on offense," Petersen said, "and that’s the bottom line."
With Gaskin unavailable for a second consecutive game at running back, Sean McGrew started again and picked up 20 yards on seven carries, but fellow redshirt freshman Kamari Pleasant did most of the running, leading the Huskies with 62 yards on 12 carries. Surprisingly, sophomore speedster Salvon Ahmed contributed very little on this night, finishing with -2 yards on eight rushes.
Browning completed just 12 of 21 throws for 148 yards and the touchdown to Jones. He couldn't make anything happen after the early success. On the Huskies’ second possession of the game, the veteran quarterback committed a huge blunder when he moved his team to the Cal 29, tried to throw the ball away at the sideline and was intercepted by Bears cornerback Camryn Bynum.
Cal’s only offensive points were provided in the first half by kicker Greg Thomas, who converted on 23- and 35-yard field goals to cut the UW lead to 7-6, but he missed on a 41-yarder to take the lead on the last play before breaking for intermission.
The UW defense, while down three starters, did its part and piled up four sacks--the Huskies had just 10 through their first eight games. Down linemen Greg Gaines, Levi Onwuzurike and Jaylen Johnson each got to the Cal quarterback and logged one. Gaines, in fact, turned in his best performance of the season, finishing with 10 tackles, six solo.
Yet this game was all about the Huskies’ offensive ineffectiveness. It was maddening. It was so prolonged it made Petersen resort to his desperation move.
Typical of the nightmare, the UW drove to the Bears 32 to open the second half, with McGrew skirting upfield with a 41-yard catch, but Browning was sacked on fourth down.
The Huskies had a huge opportunity to avoid the upset when Aaron Fuller broke several tackles and returned a Cal punt 28 yards to the Bears 22 with 6:56 left in the fourth quarter.
However, the Huskies unwisely tried to run a reverse on first down and guessed wrong, with Ahmed dropped for a 10-yard loss. A 20-yard pass from Browning to Jones gave the UW a reprieve and a first down on the Bears 9. The drive stalled when Pleasant was held for no gain, Browning overthrew Fuller in the end zone and the quarterback tossed an apparent interception to Cal’s Ashton Davis, who appeared to tuck the ball in and then fumble it back to the UW near the goal line—but the officials ruled the pass incomplete, leading to the Henry field goal.
The Huskies have a week to try and sort out things offensively before playing Stanford, a 41-38 loser at home to Washington State. A Seattle Times report indicates that offensive tackle Trey Adams and Bryant, who haven’t played this season, may be close to taking the field again, same as Gaskin.
But there’s a lot to repair in a UW season that’s turned surprisingly messy, especially its momentary loss of faith in its veteran quarterback.