This Huskies football season got away from coach Chris Petersen.
It’s hard to say how or why, since media can’t watch practice and the players are trained to avoid honesty in public. But the conclusion nevertheless is visible and inescapable, following Pac-12 Conference defeats to 4-6 Cal, 5-5 Stanford and 4-6 Colorado. The 20-14 loss Saturday to the Buffaloes in Boulder was a stark depiction of a team getting worse instead of better, with minimal excuses for injuries.
Even at his presser Monday, things got a little worse.
After denying that Colorado wanted the game more than Washington, despite the obvious domination of both lines, Petersen was asked whether the Huskies were missing an edge in their play.
“I don’t think there was an edge that was missing,” he said. “I thought there was a little bit of panic that went on.”
That isn’t the sign of a well-prepared team.
Petersen was referring to perhaps the worst half of his six-year Montlake tenure — 91 yards of offense in the first two quarters, including 10 yards rushing. The Huskies had four three-and-out drives, and the only other possession, the one that ventured onto foreign soil, was an interception of Jacob Eason that barely missed being another pick-six.
“We had so many three-and-outs, couldn’t get into a rhythm in the first half,” he said. “I think that’s what happens sometimes when we can’t get something going. The (opponents) hold the ball and they’re driving, and we’re kind of on our heels.
“We just had way too many three-and-outs. I think that changes the chemistry and the mojo, for sure.”
Even adjusting for the fact that these are kids and not NFL pros, the notion of panic settling in 10 games into a high-powered program’s season is startling. It speaks to a void in leadership from coaches and from players, particularly when the deficit was a manageable 13-0.
This is a program that had been to three consecutive New Year’s Six bowls and twice won conference championships. The ’19 Huskies certainly played well at times, and provided commendable efforts against the conference’s two ranked teams, Oregon and Utah. So to get shoved around by the Buffs — entering the game the CU defense had a season total of nine sacks, and picked up five Saturday — was a study in unexpected futility.
When another question about panic followed, Petersen realized he was out on a limb, and tried to scoot back.
“I’m not sure if (panic) is the right word,” he said. “But I know it’s very unsettling and there’s a tendency to press a little bit more.
“I think the good teams can just shake it off and reload and go make a play, and we haven’t been able to do that. We need to get into a rhythm, and when we do, it’s like, ‘OK, why can’t this go on at all times?’ That’s the thing that’s been perplexing and a little frustrating.”
Petersen implied that the Huskies aren’t a good team, which is true, but it’s rare to hear such candor from him. And his season-long inability to diagnose the source of the problem, at least one he’s willing to share, is puzzling.
One factor inhibiting the Huskies could be the awkward situation involving Eason.
He’s a much-recruited local hero from Lake Stevens who went far away to Georgia, where he started as a freshman. After returning from an injury, he was beaten out for the starting job in Athens and transferred back home to Washington.
After the NCAA-mandated one-year sit-out, Eason was all but a lock to start the season. But his ascension prompted the transfers of not one but two competitors, Jake Haener and Colson Yankoff, leaving the backup job to Jacob Sirmon, a redshirt freshman not close to Eason’s caliber.
And it’s likely that, despite his modest season numbers, Eason is a one-and-done headed in April to the NFL. Whether this corporate-culture ruthlessness has generated resentment among players is not known. But it is reasonable to ask about the quality of Eason’s leadership.
“I don’t put that on him — he’s the new guy,” Petersen said. “One thing I know about him, he’s an awesome kid. That kid — guy drops a pass, protection’s not right, game doesn’t go well — he doesn’t even kind of point fingers. That is not him at all.
“I think his leadership is fine. He’s grown this year as a leader. I think of the guys that have been around here a long time. I know he’s the quarterback. But I think he’s done a nice job.”
Well, Eason indeed may be awesome, fine, good. But perhaps he should have pointed fingers, including at himself. Maybe he should have taken animated charge of a faltering, fragile team.
In the second half, the Huskies did muster two 75-yard touchdown drives. But they needed a third. On the final two possessions of the game, UW had eight plays that combined netted minus-3 yards.
It’s probably unfair to put so much on Eason. As Petersen said, he’s the new kid. But Petersen went to considerable trouble to obtain and maintain the new kid’s services, even knowing he was probably a one-year rental. More was expected of him than “a nice job.”
But if it isn’t upon Eason to pull the team out of a panic attack, then it is up to the coaches. None in Petersen’s crew has managed it so far.
Fortunately for all of them, there is one game left, Friday at sold-out Husky Stadium against Washington State. The 6-5 Cougars have lost six Apple Cups in a row, and sense their best chance yet to swing their sword in a manner that finally draws purple blood.
Petersen has done so much for the UW program that there’s no way a single season that got away puts him in any professional jeopardy. But lose an Apple Cup to Mike Leach, and his staff will learn a little more about how to manage a panic attack.