It’s been 27 seasons since Washington fielded a national championship college football team. As people tried to will Chris Petersen’s current Huskies into legitimate contenders, they either forget what it took to make something glorious like that happen or never knew in the first place. For several reasons, it was the title talk that never was.
The 1991 Huskies had NFL-bound players at practically every position, some absolutely freakish in ability; an abundance of quarterback talent that made it possible to overcome the loss of starter Mark Brunell to a spring knee injury, replacing one future pro with another in Billy Joe Hobert; and, most of all, they had the ability to deal with any game-day adversity that came their way.
They were 12-0, Alabama in purple uniforms, a team that everyone feared. They crushed Michigan at the Rose Bowl, fourth-quartered Nebraska in Lincoln, and handled always testy USC in Los Angeles and a great California team in Berkeley. They had supreme talent, confidence and swagger.
Petersen’s team, while top 20 caliber, has some holes in it and obvious deficiencies. No pass rush. The mindset is different, too, more businesslike than fiery, which is what Steve Emtman’s crew was all about. They let everyone know they were good at all times. While Petersen’s teams are carefully shielded from the press, and offered up only in brief and controlled interview sessions, the 1991 UW players thoroughly enjoyed the media spotlight, were readily available to capitulate for long stretches at a time and weren’t afraid to say what they thought. Championship players typically are very comfortable in their own skin.
The 2018 Huskies never really had a chance to reach for college football’s rarified air once Vita Vea—the poor man’s Emtman and an automatic double- or triple-team—passed on his final college season on the defensive line and cast his lot with the pros. If you don’t believe it, explain why this UW team has accumulated just nine sacks through seven games after averaging more than 40 during each of Petersen’s first four seasons as the Huskies coach? Not nearly enough quarterback pressure. They’re not even on a pace to reach half of their usual output this season.
Further stamping this Washington team as good, rather than great, was the season-ending injury to offensive tackle Trey Adams—a player equivalent in abundant size and skill to 1991’s eventual All-America and first-round NFL draft pick Lincoln Kennedy—which took away another dominant element before anything got started. Adams’ replacement, Jared Hilbers, has been adequate but nowhere near his equal in performance; Hilbers was noticeably spun around and schooled for a sack in Saturday’s game at Oregon.
A touchy subject for Petersen is this: He can’t understand why anyone would criticize Jake Browning, his hand-picked and highly accomplished quarterback for four seasons. Fickle fandom is one thing, but fact-filled comparison is another. He’s no Chris Chandler or Hobert, which means he’s no miracle worker or dragon slayer. While he has plenty of football smarts, an abundance of school records and the starting job all to himself throughout his entire career, Browning hasn’t brought his team back from a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit at Nebraska as Hobert did. He hasn’t taken the Huskies the length of the field to topple USC using a two-minute drill similar to Chandler. Browning needs a defining moment.
No offense to the incumbent, but outside observers can’t be faulted for wanting to see what transfer Jacob Eason will bring to the program next season. He’s 6-foot-6, six inches taller than Jake, and possesses a stronger arm. He was good enough to be named the nation’s top QB prospect coming out of high school and become Georgia’s starter as a true freshman and as a sophomore before he got injured. In fact, there might have been more than a few grumpy Bulldogs fans pining for Eason last weekend when his replacement, Jake Fromm, suffered through his worst game as a collegian against LSU.
Another nitpick is the receiving corps. The 1991 Huskies were a veteran crew who always got open, beginning with first-team All-America and deep threat Mario Bailey; the 2018 group is an adequate bunch that can’t get separation at times against an elite secondary, such as Saturday in Eugene—when these wideouts had just two catches by halftime—though Ty Jones has the makings of a star, but he’s just not there yet.
The tight ends from generation to generation are a wash, with Drew Sample and Cade Otton demonstrating almost identical pro-level blocking and receiving skills that sent the 1991 reliables Aaron Pierce and Mark Bruener to the NFL.
The inside linebackers also are a wash, with Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett demonstrating the same sort of physicality and coverage as 1991’s Dave Hoffman and Chico Fraley. Burr-Kirven, in fact, was named to ESPN’s midseason All-America team this week for his ability to play the run and drop back in pass coverage effectively. This year’s UW team, however, doesn’t have an outside backer who emulates the late Jaime Fields, a guy who could flat-out run, create turnovers and share in an unforgettable sack dance with Emtman.
The current Washington team is better off at running back with a healthy Myles Gaskin, now the Huskies’ all-time leading rusher, who has both breakaway speed and incredible patience in waiting for a hole to open. In 1991, the position was shared by committee among Beno Bryant, Jay Barry and Matt Jones, though Bryant showed he was as fast as any UW back before or since.
The 2018 secondary also is in potentially better hands with Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy, guys possibly headed to more stardom on the college and NFL levels than the accomplished Shane Pahukoa and Dana Hall in 1991, though Hall was good enough to be a first-rounder.
That leaves placekicker to properly make a point here. The Huskies currently depend on Peyton Henry, who wasn’t up to the weighted pressure of hitting a chippie to beat Oregon on the final play of regulation. You either make them or you don’t. You’re either the hero or the goat. You’re usually both in your career. It comes with that unforgiving job. In 1991, the UW relied on Travis Hanson, who was an average kicking talent and not anywhere near as productive as his older brother Jason, the long-time NFL toe from Washington State, but he took care of the short stuff and extra points. Hanson never encountered a situation that really got his heart pounding like the one Saturday in Eugene.
That’s because the 1991 Washington Huskies, as a collective unit, were so superior to their opponents that they never once had to ask their kicker to step up and win a game under pressure.