Chris Petersen’s fifth Washington football team was supposed to be his best one. Sixth-ranked in the preseason. Serious playoff candidate. Proven players throughout the lineup. Six four-year starters-to-be. A projected NFL first-round pick in offensive tackle Trey Adams. The school’s all-time leading rusher in Myles Gaskin.
Yet as everyone knows, football can even things out fairly quick. Disastrous injuries. Crippling scandal. Slumping players. Lack of chemistry. Just one of those factors can totally redirect a season.
Injuries more than anything dulled ultimate ambitions for the current Huskies (7-3 overall, 5-2 Pac-12). This watered-down team tumbled out of the national championship conversation on the first weekend, unable to beat what has become a fairly ordinary Auburn bunch (6-3 overall 3-3 SEC).
Adams hasn’t been on the field for a single down since injuring his back four days before that opener and requiring surgery. It can’t be minimized how much losing its best player has hurt this football team. The Huskies haven’t been nearly as powerful offensively without him, rushing yards haven’t been nearly as automatic and quarterback Jake Browning has been left to fend for himself with the pocket often collapsing around him.
The UW envisioned a second national playoff berth in three seasons, maybe a rematch with Alabama. The Huskies were 5-1 before the roof really fell in. A missed field goal and an inadvisable quarterback change cost them two more games. The margin for error has been ever so slight.
Adams, who during this bye week said on social media that he would return for a fifth college season in 2019, might have been the difference between the Huskies losing to Auburn 21-16, Oregon 30-27 in overtime and California 12-10, and going unbeaten. The UW needed just a little more manpower to get over the hump.
“It’s been rough with those weird losses,” senior defensive lineman Greg Gaines said. “It’s been a weird year for everyone.”
While this season might seem like a big waste at this point, with so much talent on the roster and not enough to show for it, this isn’t the first time the Huskies have had a potentially huge year blow up on them.
This team could still win out, claim the Pac-12 championship and earn a Rose Bowl berth—and be considered a success. Yet with another setback, presumably to the surprising Cougars, a four-loss UW team with weighty credentials easily could be considered one of the top disappointments in school annals. Here currently are the top 5:
No UW football season has been more agonizingly reversible than this one. Coming off an 8-2 showing in 1950 that consisted of a pair of bitter seven-point defeats, the Huskies were banking on their high-profile seniors—Don Heinrich, a returning All-America quarterback, and Hugh McElhenny, who would become an All-America running back that season—to carry them to greatness. Nothing less than a Rose Bowl was acceptable. The UW was ranked eighth in the AP preseason poll.
However, leading up to the regular-season opener, an overeager reserve slammed into the supposedly hands-off Heinrich at practice, broke the QB’s collarbone and everything was lost before the first official snap. Without their normal leader running the huddle, the Huskies finished a dreadful 3-6-1.
“I don’t know who that kid was but it was a dummy scrimmage and that was so stupid,” McElhenny said. “Heinie was the difference in us going to the Rose Bowl in 1951.”
Big, big things were predicted for a senior-laden UW team led by swashbuckling quarterback Sonny Sixkiller, already a Sports Illustrated cover boy and a college football curiosity entering the season. The Huskies were the Rose Bowl favorites. Voters ranked them ninth in the AP preseason poll. Preview magazines had them higher. They won their first five games.
Everything changed abruptly when Sixkiller got hurt and missed three and a half games. Backup quarterback Greg Collins went down, too, forcing the Huskies to rely on their normal third- and fourth-unit guys, Dennis Fitzpatrick and Mark Backman. They used all three subs in one game to compensate for no No. 6. Sixkiller and Co. finished a disappointing 8-3, suffering big defeats to Stanford, USC and WSU. There was no postseason play for the legendary quarterback and his crew at a time when Pac-8 teams had to earn the Rose Bowl berth or stay home. It was a disappointing end to an exciting era.
“Half of the team was, ‘Whatever, we’re not going to a bowl game,’ ” Sixkiller said of a closing 27-10 loss to the Cougars. “It was just crazy we didn’t go. It would have been nice to play in a bowl game.”
Coming off a lopsided Rose Bowl victory over Iowa and a 10-2 season, the Huskies were expected to be even more dominant the following year. They were ranked second in the AP preseason poll and held the No. 1 spot for the first time, lording over everyone in college football for six long weeks.
They were 7-0 when a John Elway-led Stanford team beat them 43-31 in a Palo Alto shootout. They still had a chance to advance to another Rose Bowl but the Huskies lost to Washington State 24-20 in a game remembered for All-America kicker Chuck Nelson missing a 33-yard kick late in the game to take the lead—his first misfire after an NCAA record 30 consecutive makes. The UW ended up in Honolulu for the holidays rather than Pasadena, and beat Maryland to finish 10-2 again but that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy anyone.
“It was the day we clinched an Aloha Bowl berth,” Nelson said sarcastically of the Pullman letdown.
Coming off consecutive and convincing Rose Bowl victories, the Huskies opened the season 8-0, boasted a 22-game winning streak that stretched over three seasons and were ranked No. 1 for five of six weeks. However, scandal hit this team hard.
Quarterback Billy Joe Hobert accepted a questionable $50,000 offseason loan from a generous Idaho businessman and he was suspended by the NCAA. The UW couldn’t handle the distractions and lost three of its last four games, including the Rose Bowl, to finish 9-3. It was the end of a budding dynasty and the end of Huskies coach Don James, who resigned because of the scandal. He would never agree with the league punishment that gave the UW a bowl ban and halted Hobert’s college days.
“In my opinion, Billy Joe didn’t have an NCAA violation,” the now deceased James said. “But the way he was spending money was borderline stupid.”
The UW fielded a team full of NFL prospects and ultimate hopes, and were fourth ranked in the AP preseason poll anticipating a special season. The Huskies even moved up to No. 2 once things got started. They opened 7-1 but slumped and dropped their final three games of the regular season, including close ones to Oregon and WSU. A spate of injuries hurt them. Critics said UW coach Jim Lambright had great players but didn’t mold them into a disciplined team. An Aloha Bowl victory over Michigan State and then-Spartans coach Nick Saban couldn’t dampen the disappointment of an 8-4 season.
“When we are healthy and we came to play, we were a top 5 team,” wide receiver Fred Coleman said.
Junior quarterback Brock Huard and his highly regarded Huskies teammates simply didn’t have it coming down the stretch. They rolled over in the Apple Cup as Washington State beat them and advanced to the Rose Bowl.
History could repeat itself: Mike Leach’s one-loss Cougars might duplicate that deflating scenario later this month for the UW.