For a 45-3 win (box) that included 632 yards, you can argue it’s a stretch to say that the University of Washington’s offense was often crappy. But that’s because you were not present in person, nor in front of a screen, to see how the Huskies handled themselves Saturday against North Dakota, a program that is to big-time college football what Justin Bieber is to low-post play in basketball.
These payday mismatches are not only lame entertainment, but regularly useless for the big program’s evaluation purposes. Nevertheless, senior QB Jake Browning was able to deduce a problem that needed no forensic investigation.
“I don’t feel I played to my standard,” he said. “I’m not really happy with how I played.”
Browning has always been self-critical, to a fault. After all, he completed 23 of 37 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns.
But he threw two interceptions, genuinely bad balls that were not from pass-rush pressure. And despite the numbers, the first unit he directed was often blah. Over the final two possessions in the second quarter and first two in the third quarter, the Huskies had no points, two first downs and 25 yards of offense.
They exhibited little of the passion that one might have expected following a season-opening, 21-16 loss on the road to ninth-ranked Auburn that had all the woulda-coulda-shoulda hallmarks of a defeat they will never forget.
“We didn’t impose our will that much on offense,” Browning said of Saturday’s doings. “We ripped off some big runs, but I don’t feel we dominated at any point.
“They kinda dominated us sometimes.”
Browning’s candor about an independent team that plays a Big Sky Conference schedule the rest of the way is a bit chilling for Huskies fans. The margin was just 17-3 deep into the third quarter.
The Huskies running game produced 195 yards in 34 carries, but again the numbers were deceiving. They scored in five of six red zone trips, but each was a struggle despite the difference in size and talent. The final two TDs came from the second unit in the final nine minutes against a mostly worn-out defense.
“I wasn’t feeling good about the red zone, to tell you the truth,” coach Chris Petersen said of the same weakness that crippled the Huskies in Atlanta. “It just seemed tougher than we like it. They pack a lot of guys in there (to deny the run) and you have to be physical and precise.
“(The run game was) not good. North Dakota did what we prepared for. We just didn’t block them enough. They didn’t stay blocked, and mixed in some blitzes. The guys in the fourth quarter attacked it. There was some nice clean runs.”
Part of the problem was another injury in the offensive line.
Junior starter center Nick Harris was out with an injury, replaced by senior Jesse Sosebee. That followed the big news of the week: LT Trey Adams was lost for the season after back surgery to fix a disc. He already missed most of 2017 with an ACL tear but was preparing to start in 2018 until the unrelated problem knocked the potential NFL first-round draft choice back to the hospital and out of the Auburn game.
For the second week in a row, Jared Hilbers, a 6-foot-7, 313-pound junior from Beaverton, Ore., was the starter.
‘Obviously, Trey is a big-time player for us, but like coach Pete always says, next man carries the flag,” Hilbers said. “I’m just trying to do my best to help the offense take off.
“The biggest challenge is staying locked in and getting my calls right, communicating so that me and the left guard are on the same page. The first game, I had a couple of miscommunications.”
At right guard is Jaxson Kirkland, a redshirt freshman also prone to rookie mistakes. So there are reasons for the ground production problem. As eyes turned to Browning, another figure popped up: Redshirt freshman QB Jake Haener.
The backup came in to lead the final two scoring drives, of 73 and 83 yards, by hitting on all seven passes for 110 yards, including a 43-yard beauty to WR Ty Jones. Again, it was garbage time against an exhausted defense, but it was an impressive debut and contrasted with Browning’s work that he termed “sub-par.”
“Haener came in and made some big-time throws, and went through his reads,” Browning said. “He definitely played well in practice, and we gave him the ball. He earned that second-string spot in a pretty tough (QB) room. I’m happy for him.”
So are the coaches. The late fireworks were not enough to cause a quarterback controversy, but it will anyway because that’s what happens in football when the starter falters, especially after a couple of games below Browning’s self-declared standards.
If Haener’s play lights a fire under Browning, the Pac-12 Conference opener Saturday against Utah in Salt Lake City would be a fine moment for him to help assert the Huskies’ dormant will.