After experiencing in person the chokehold that masqueraded as a college football playoff game, I find myself strangely at peace with the 24-7 loss by UW to Alabama in the 2016 Peach Bowl.
The 2016 UW football campaign, by any measure, was a smashing success. The graduating seniors and likely NFL Draft declarees raised the bar on expectations for this football program both with their performance on the field and their commitment to Chris Petersen’s “Built for Life” philosophy. Guys like Jake Eldrenkamp, Kevin King, Darrell Daniels, Elijah Qualls and John Ross (to name just a few) have carried the biggest burden as they held the baggage from the Sark regime and had to unlearn a whole different manner of conducting themselves as student athletes.
Bravo to each of them. For those among them who have played their last game in purple and gold, our admiration and our gratitude go with them.
Nevertheless, the Peach Bowl put on full display just where UW stands in their state of readiness to be a national contender. Like a man in a bad toupee, the lack of authenticity may not be readily apparent to those of us who so badly want to be relevant at that level, but it is obvious to those who look at us with unbiased eyes. The run into the college football playoffs was exciting. But the Huskies have not yet arrived.
Alabama’s whipping of UW was a great example of what a superior team with a good coaching staff can do when given time to prepare. Nick Saban ignored the faux analyses of the talking heads and formed his own game plan based on what he and his staff saw on UW’s tape. Some of those things were sore spots UW fans were aware of (o-line play) and some were things that we had convinced ourselves were fine (WR play, rush defense) but, in truth, were not up to par.
The season is now over and the 24-hour rule has expired. Signing day is just weeks away and the process of beginning preparations for defending the PAC 12 title will soon begin in earnest. It is time to tell the truth and to address the areas on the field that are too deficient to be compensated for by those things that are done very well. The rebuild continues.
Fortunately, the foundation is now solidly in place and the raw materials to complete the job are available if not abundant. The point of this article is to not criticize, but simply to discuss where UW needs to go from here.
Before we jump in, let's keep in mind what Chris Petersen is trying to build. The goal isn't to be a “"perfect” team, but a championship caliber one. Saban is demonstrating with his all-star squad of 5 stars and pro prospects that even the most resourced of programs have to make trade offs - such as starting a true freshman who can’t really throw the ball at quarterback.
For UW, the name of the game is “Balance”. The strategy is to build from the defense and special teams out so that the score is always within striking distance for the offense. That strategy was very effective in 2016 as UW was the only team in the nation that did not surrender at least one game of 30 points or more. Not even Alabama can claim that accomplishment. In fact, that same Alabama team that averaged over 40 points per game in the regular season were held to just 24 - and just 17 by the offense - against UW. Clearly, the score was “within reach” at the Peach Bowl.
With the notion of “balance” in mind, here are my opinions on the next steps this program has to take.
Jimmy’s and Joe’s
UW has done a great job under Chris Petersen in putting good players into good positions and making them successful. When the caliber of athletes is relatively matched, UW’s methods of player development, preparation and schemes can tip the scales.
We now have ample evidence to suggest that elite young players can thrive in that same environment. Talents like Budda Baker, Shaq Thompson, Danny Shelton, Azeem Victor, Vita Vea and Elijah Qualls are all proof that highly-rated talent paired with Petersen’s program can produce amazing results.
The truth is, however, that UW just doesn't have enough of those talents to compete with other programs ... at least not yet. Our roster does not yet look like those put together by the USC’s, UCLA’s and Stanford’s of the world. There are clearly position groups that are more pressing areas than others, but I believe it is fair to say that only the secondary has the kind of rich talent that you would expect to see spread more broadly across a championship roster.
This isn't news and has clearly been a focus of the staff since day one. UW’s current recruiting class is ranked 18 in the nation even before accounting for how well the coaches do in unearthing unheralded talents (think Vita Vea and Sidney Jones). The goal is ultimately to upgrade the base stock to the point where UW’s player development system is less about compensating and more about dominating.
Even the most purple-drunk fan has been feeling unease about the performance of the UW offensive line for most of the season. The run blocking was way off in the early part of the season. Towards the end, it was blitz pickup and general pass protection that became problematic. Both of those issues were on full display in the Peach Bowl.
Though already in year three, it remains too early to tell whether or not Chris Strausser has this unit on the right trajectory. Their best players are also their youngest and some of them - Kaleb McGary, Nick Harris, etc - do not have a lot of experience to draw upon. Nevertheless, this unit is the one unit on the team that is toeing the line of “underperforming”. That we are in the third year of this regime and still in a position to have to start the occasional true freshmen is a red flag.
Depth and talent are issues, to be sure. Continuing to address that with recruiting is an obvious requirement. But one does have to wonder, with just one OL recruit in the fold for the 2017 class, whether there is something more at play with this unit that the staff needs to be honest about and address. It is not surprising that teams with good defensive lines - think USC, Utah and Alabama - were able to severely crimp our offensive productivity. Jake Browning and the running backs group are not individually dominating enough to compensate for the struggles up front.
The greatest fallacy accepted as fact about this team by UW fans is that they solved their receiving problems in 2016. It is absolutely true that John Ross and Dante Pettis had great seasons. It is also true that Aaron Fuller and Chico McClatcher gave us reasons to believe that there are good things on the horizon. But this is still a young and homogenous group who, as both Colorado and Alabama clearly demonstrated, isn't ready to compete with the better secondaries in the nation.
UW couldn't establish a big receiver all season (they simply couldn't afford to regularly use their TEs as catch-first options) and their smaller guys all showed that they have a ways to go in getting open against tougher competition. Even John Ross, for as spectacular as he was all season (and, my goodness, what would this offense had been without him?), probably cost himself some NFL money with how mightily he struggled in one on one matchups against Alabama’s NFL-caliber corners. Both USC and Alabama showed that UW receivers are incapable of creating space on their own and can be effectively neutralized if their speed advantage is neutralized by a numbers advantage.
That said, UW doesn't have to become “receiver U” to be successful. But they do have to both upgrade their talent and establish some players who have a chance at catching balls even when they are covered. This is also not news. Petersen started pushing this issue with the step of repla his previous receivers coach with Bush Hamdan. The emphasis on receivers has been obvious with the 2017 recruiting class.
This one is the most frustrating as it involves the one thing not directly under the control of coaches. Football, by definition, is a battle against attrition. Every team experiences it. The best of the best are either very lucky or, more likely, able to cope with experience.
Consider the case of Alabama. They were missing an All-American safety and their star MLB coming into the Peach Bowl. That was a lot of talent missing from the middle of the defense. But instead of that becoming a weakness for UW to exploit, ‘Bama compensated with experienced players who had played hundreds of snaps for Nick Saban over the last few years.
Washington has furiously been developing the cache of banked reps across their roster this season. You’ve seen it in their aggressive player rotations on the offensive line, the defensive line and the defensive secondary. Nevertheless, attrition has resulted in guys like DJ Beavers, Nick Harris and Benning Potoa’e playing critical roles at early junctures in their careers. Each are going to be studs (and Potoa’e really shined, I thought, against ‘Bama), but none have reached the optimum point where their skills and physical talents come together.
2016 was a watershed year for the Huskies. They demonstrated that they have the potential to dominate and that they belong in the conversation among the best teams in the country. The Peach Bowl exposed the work that is left to do but in no way invalidates what was accomplished. Chris Petersen has the program ahead of schedule. But the secret is now out and it is time to start the process of taking the next step.