BY Art Thiel 07:55PM 12/31/2016

Thiel: 3 plays that could have stemmed Tide

Alabama’s defense was as advertised, but three makeable plays by Washington would have at least turned the Peach Bowl into something other than another notch on the Crimson Tide’s belt.

The Huskies looked good celebrating. Connor Griffin joined fellow WR Dante Pettis in a leap after Washington’s only touchdown. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Nothwest

In the same season Washington ended its long regional nightmare with a 70-21 win over Oregon, the Huskies discovered Saturday afternoon they were still behind the No. 1 team in the NFC South . . . er, college football nation.

And yet . . .

The 24-7 Peach Bowl loss to Alabama arguably came down to three standard plays that went unmade:

  • An interception missed by SS Budda Baker on Alabama’s first pass;
  • An Alabama fumble in the hands of LB Psalm Wooching that went uncollected, and
  • An Alabama rush in which five Huskies, including two in the backfield, had their hands on Bo Scarbrough, but let him go for 68 yards and a touchdown.

Obviously, nothing would have been assured had the Huskies made those plays. But the game would at least have been knocked off script. Instead, the 14-point underdog Huskies fell exactly the way Washington coach Chris Petersen and nearly every football pundit foresaw the game narrative.

“You could see what needed to happen,” he said. “We could not turn the ball over and give them points. We did that twice (for a field goal and a touchdown). Then we had a chance to get our hands on two turnovers. And we didn’t quite do that.

“And we missed five tackles on one play. Other than that, we played really well. Unfortunately, that’s how these games come down: A couple plays, when you’re splitting hairs, change everything.”

It’s fairly unusual to find a big-time sports event that goes almost exactly as the forecasters predicted, in style as well as result. Otherwise it’s reality TV, and few would care.

As much as Huskies fans fervently wished against the truth, Alabama indeed has likely the best defense in college football history. So no deceits, feints or tricks that made Petersen legendary at Boise State could be reasonably deployed.

Often forgotten is that non-standard plays have a lower percentage of success. Coaches typically try them only in non-fatal, or desperate, moments. But against a defense as good as Alabama’s, every play could be an exploding cigar. When a high-risk play blows up, the coach will carry the play to his professional grave, an event which tends to arrive earlier the more fans can brand a play call dumb.

The Huskies had one game plan, the only one available to foes of the Crimson Tide: Stay close with no mistakes, then get lucky.

Until Scarbrough broke free with 12 minutes remaining, Alabama’s 17-7 lead was a single big Washington play away from precariousness. The short field that would have been provided by either a Baker pick or a Wooching recovery could have been worth at least three points each.

Those if-thens are always present in football. But the fact was that Washington’s defense did enough valorous feats that meant victory was never made remote until the run by Scarbrough, the game’s offensive MVP with 180 yards on 19 carries.

“You don’t come into this game as an offense feeling great about things,” Petersen said. “You can’t put your defense in a bad place, but you still have to take chances to move the ball.”

Coach Nick Saban decided that his defense was so good he could afford to eliminate Petersen’s ability to take chances by double-teaming WR John Ross into irrelevance. Ross’s five catches for 28 yards was the decisive stat, because Ross was the one offensive talent the likes of which the Crimson Tide had not seen. The double-team risk was manageable because no one runs on Alabama’s front seven, and on passing downs, Browning would not have enough time to find alternatives to Ross.

The killer moment for the strategy was late in the first half and trailing 10-7, Browning threw an interception that was returned by LB Ryan Anderson 26 yards for a touchdown. With Ross covered, the play collapsed via rare blitz by LB Reuben Foster, who came untouched because the play called for no blocking back.

“They kinda had us on that,” Petersen said. “We free-released the (blocking) back. They called blitz and Jake was just trying to get it out of his hand. It’s either going to be incomplete or (Alabama) gets it. They had the right blitz for that play.”

Alabama does that a lot. It was the Tide’s 11th defensive touchdown of the season.

“I’ve got to learn to throw the ball away instead of making something out of nothing,” said Browning, who had his third sub-par results in the final four games of the season.

But neither Browning nor the rest of the Huskies need feel any shame over losing to the defending national champions, who have won 26 in a row, including 15 over ranked teams. A step back from Saturday shows a remarkable achievement: a 12-2 season and a Pac-12 Conference championship that made the Huskies nationally relevant for the first time in 15 years.

“I’m proud of some guys who’ve been around here for a long time, who really raised the bar,” Petersen said. “A lot of guys elevated the bar, to be what a lot of people wanted Huskies football to be all about in the past. We moved the needle forward.”

As DT Elijah Qualls put it, “We’re not anywhere we could be with just a little more detail, effort and execution. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have have won the game.”

He’s not far off. Reverse three makeable plays, and Saban’s perpetual weapons-grade pucker may have had  reason to collapse in on him to leave nothing but a straw hat.



  • ReebHerb

    The Husky defense must be very tired puppies tonight. They played their hearts out and didn’t get much time to catch their breath. Wow. Alabama is big, fast, and strong.

    I liked how Coach Saban sought out his two unsportmanship penalized players at the end of the game and straighten them out on the sideline. Of course, he has a lot of leverage with not much fall off in the backups.

    • art thiel

      Saban screams at his personal assistants that way. Players, coaches, media, fans, Saban suffers no fools nor foolish moments.

  • Effzee

    #boogereater << the most satisfying moment of the game.

    • art thiel

      Let’s all agree that it was funny, and that we’re all beyond high school.

  • 1coolguy

    For starters, the UW defensive lineman was TACKLED at the line on the 68 yard run – unbelievable Bama wasn’t called for holding. Three of us jumped out of our seats when it happened and couldn’t believe such an obvious hold was not called.

    UW missed Victor in the middle HUGE – 180 yards that Bo got would have been less than 100 with Azeem in there. The number of 5-10 yard rushes he had was ridiculous.

    None of us could believe Browning threw the bone-headed pick six – WTF???
    The D played Bama straight up – no way we lose if the offense does its’ job.
    I place blame on Smith, the OC – once Tedford left before the USC game, the difference in our offensive performance was clear, especially Browning. He went downhill after Tedford left, even though the official line was he had no contact. Chris gave Smith a 1 year extension last year and needs to find a new OC this year – it didn’t work.

    I hope this off season Jake hits the weight room so his long passes are not ducks – he needs more pace on the ball to hit the smaller windows that good teams present.

    • Effzee

      Dude. There was nothing the Dawgs could have done against that D. Jeff Tedford wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. Our offense was totally outmatched. Even if the three plays Art isolated resulted differently, there is zero percent chance we would have won the game. I agree about Browning, and I’m not a huge J.Smith guy, but that game was not winnable by us yesterday, by any stretch of the imagination.

      • art thiel

        UW had better than a zero chance, but as was said my many, they had to play nearly perfectly. Reversing the three play outcomes would have provided them the chance. Creating two turnovers would have provided at least 2 FG shots, and denying the big man would have forced another punt.

        • Effzee

          Oh I totally agree with you. I just think those things didn’t happen *because* of the talent disparity. You can’t woulda-shoulda-coulda sports games, because if you change one thing that we could have done better, then the other teams reaction to the thing would have been different, too.

          • art thiel

            I know about woulda-coulda. My point was that despite the disparity between the teams, reversing three makeable plays would have put them on the threshoid. That’s how upsets happen.

        • 1coolguy

          The pick six immediately reminded us of the other infamous Husky pick-six, the one shown before all home games at Oregon, which Oregon fans believe begat their winning streak against the Huskies: Huard’s pick six. The cows are out of the barn on these, yet at least Browning has the opportunity to have stellar junior and hopefully senior seasons to diminish the memory.

    • art thiel

      A couple of good points. I saw the hold as well.

      Victor and Mathis were difference-makers. Bama lost D starters as well this season. That’s the difference between the programs. Saban can stockpile 4- and 5-stars. In his third year, Petersen has some among the starters, but not the depth yet.

      But Smith is not the problem. Browning is a sophomore who needs more physical maturity and in-game experience. The OC isn’t failing to block Bama’s front 7.

      • Jamo57

        I agree re: the depth issue and Browning and the OL. Saban can stockpile. I’m not sure UW will ever reach the point of being able to do that with USC in the conference. I was thinking last night that going up against Bama’s front 7 with a true sophomore LT and a RG who was 17 when the season began was an incredibly tall order. Great season, looking forward to seeing where we go from here.

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  • ll9956

    You are right, Art. Three makeable with would certainly made the outcome different, although the Dawgs likely would have lost nonetheless. The pick six was a killer. I’d argue it’s a poorly designed and very risky play. The coaches should have told Jake to throw the ball away unless it looks like a sure completion. Admittedly he was under heavy pressure with almost no time to think.

    Saban’s tantrum on the sidelines late in the game was a bit amusing.

    Clemson shutting out Ohio State gets the award for surprise of the week. It would be sweet if they beat Alabama.

    • art thiel

      Bama diagnosed the play perfectly, with no blocking back available to stop the blitz. Browning needed to have the presence of mind to throw at Coleman’s feet for an incompletion. Not a coaching flaw.

      • Warren Standerwick

        I was fervently hoping that they would stick to the ground at that spot in the field at that time on the clock, so I do think the pally call was a coaching flaw.

  • DJ

    Happy New Year, Art – and you nailed it! Playing Alabama was like battling a boa constrictor. No wiggle room for errors – with each mistake, the grip only tightens.
    We got what we asked for in that measuring stick that tells us where UW’s program, and really the PAC-12, is to the current power houses in college football. Reality smarts just a bit because there is no more argument, but that former unknown was what allowed us to dream further. We can’t let that mask the extreme positives that Chris Peterson has brought to the UW program. The Dawgfather shall cast his smile of approval down from the heavens – and anticipation for the 2017 season will be exciting.

    • art thiel

      It was a simple matter of more premium players. Petersen did a remarkable thiing in getting the Huskies this far, this fast.

      • DJ

        YEP. It’s an amazing thing to see what a notch up across the board can do. Huskies’ performance should help with notching up recruiting – I can’t imagine ever matching Alabama’s draw though

  • Bruce McDermott

    As for the best defense of all time, I’m not sure. The ’91 Huskies played with a vicious ferocity, as opposed to a relentless efficiency. I didn’t see an Emtman, Fields or Smith out there.

    Overall, the Alabama secondary was better than I thought it would be. And the Huskies OLine pass blocked better than I thought it would–when Alabama rushed four.

    • Effzee

      They were in our offensive backfield all day. It was almost like watching the Seahawks this year. Browning had no chance. No doubt in my mind that yesterday’s Alabama D was *far* superior to the 91 UW team, and I am totally biased towards that team. I was in the husky marching band during the glory days. It’s hard for me to admit anyone was better than that team. ;)

      • Bruce McDermott

        You lose credibility, in my view, when you say “far” better. That just is not true, statistically or otherwise.

  • Bayview Herb

    Looking at the bright side, only 14 of 99 players on the roster are seniors. Outside of the kicker, none of the names registered as regulars. Wait until next year has more meaning than usual.

    • 1coolguy

      Very good players are third year – Baker, Ross, Qualls, Sidney Jones & Azeem Victor (injured and will be back) who may leave.

  • Husky73

    Bigger. Stronger. Faster.
    Bama beat the two best teams in the west 76-13.

    • art thiel

      Scoreboard, baby.