After a 27-17 loss to Arizona State the past week that included a scoreless second half, University of Washington coach Chris Petersen lamented the inability of his freshman-rich team to string together quality plays to sustain a laggard offense that was the biggest reason the Huskies were 4-6.
“At times, it’s impressive, and other times it’s really frustrating for everybody involved,” he said. “In a maddening way, we’re trying to figure out every little thing to . . . take the next step on offense.”
Petersen needs to go maddening more often. Saturday in Corvallis, OR., the Huskies took the next step, stringing together plays as they never have against a Pac-12 Conference opponent. After a 45-0 start, tying the school record for points in a half, no big finish was required.
Just a running clock.
It’s true the 52-7 win over injury-bludgeoned Oregon State came against the worst defense in the conference. But it was a conference team, not Jiffy Lube Tech.
“Everybody came out sharp,” Petersen said afterward. “We started fast.”
Petersen made sure of that by inserting a thigh-slapper of a trick play on the opening kickoff return that was executed so well the adrenalized Huskies didn’t have time to think about taking the Beavers lightly.
WR Marvin Hall, rarely used on returns, fielded the kickoff at the 10-yard line, took three steps and rifled an overhand lateral pass across the field to Chico McClatcher. Before the play began, McClatcher laid down along the 10-yard line to disguise his presence.
His return covered 56 yards. In three plays, the Huskies took care of the remaining distance, the final play a 14-yard TD pass to Brayden Lenius, for a 7-0 lead with 1:05 gone. As it turned out, that was the ballgame.
“It was a good way to start,” Petersen said. “It’s also fun for the guys. I was pleased how they executed it. We started with excellent field position.”
Petersen credited assistant coach Jeff Choate with the play, which Petersen said he’s used before at Boise State. The audacity was as impressive as the execution; Petersen clearly wanted to do something dramatic immediately to avoid any three-and-out hangover from Arizona State, which was probably the most dispiriting loss of the season.
He needed to restore confidence among his youngest players, who already had enjoyed one conference blowout, 49-3 over Arizona. But they followed that upper with two downers (ASU and a 34-23 home loss to Utah).
In the big picture, inconsistency is inevitable with so many young players. But big-time college football has no place for calm observation. It’s all about weekly gratification. There was no way Petersen was going to have the Huskies slop into the Apple Cup against the revived Cougars (8-3) with three consecutive losses and no bowl aspirations.
The Huskies have the conference’s best defense, which allowed the Beavers a single first down in the first half. As far as special teams, besides the McClatcher sneaky-sneaky, the Huskies had an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown from WR Dante Pettis.
Petersen had to get the offense to a minimum level of consistency if there is to be any hope to outscore Washington State. Six consecutive scoring possessions is about all one game can provide regarding confidence.
The running game with Myles Gaskin (127 yards in 23 carries) seems in order, and after QB Jake Browning delivered 18 times in 20 tries, including four touchdowns, the air attack after 10 games seems to have established protection and diversity.
Gaskin and Browning are freshmen, as are two line starters. Petersen has been asking a lot of them. Saturday looked as if they are answering.
Not a moment too soon.
“Nobody in the conference is playing better than Washington State, without question,” Petersen said. “We got a lot riding on this. This is how these (rivalry) games are supposed to be.
“We want to have Husky Stadium rocking — a lot of purple, and not too much red.”
For a while this season, the red was in the blushing of cheeks among a coaching staff entirely unused to losing so much, compared to the Boise State days. But there is no clock or calendar to consult for clues as to the maturation of young men.
Ask Cougars coach Mike Leach. It happens when it happens.
It will be happening for both Friday at Montlake.