Losing 21-16 to Auburn, a bad play call made worse was the pivot point thwarting the Huskies’ breakthrough bid for a win over an SEC powerhouse.
By the time of the December reckoning for the 2018 college football season, the details of how Auburn beat Washington 21-16 (box) on Sept. 1 likely will be forgotten by the NCAA playoff committee members and bowl selectors. They won’t be forgotten by Huskies coach Chris Petersen.
Professionally, he lives and dies by details: Snap counts, hand positions, check downs, time outs.
In the third quarter, down 15-13 in a hammer-on-anvil game in the menacing heart of Southeastern Conference country at Atlanta’s spectacular Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Huskies had a third-and-goal at Auburn’s 3-yard line.
For a tough spot against a premier red-zone defense, Petersen called for an option to the right and a pitch from QB Jake Browning to RB Salvon Ahmed.
“We knew (the game) would be physical at a high level,” he said. “We figured the most detailed team would win. We weren’t detailed enough. We got a lot of stuff to clean up.”
The missed detail was a defensive overload by Auburn that broke through the Washington line.
“They kinda had us out-manned there,” he said. “We didn’t check down; we just ran it.
“That play’s on me.”
As Browning prepared to flip the ball, DT Nick Poe popped him. The ball escaped behind Ahmed and rolled free until Auburn LB Darrell Williams fell on it at the 20. No six points, no three points, no possession and no momentum in a winnable game.
“You know it’s going to come down to that with an opponent this good — every play matters,” he said. “It starts with protection. Then we can’t make bad plays worse.
“When plays break down, sometimes a sack, or a throw out of bounds, is better than turning the ball over. Games move faster on Saturdays than during the week.”
About nine months of preparation went into a moment like this. Then a quality coach and two quality players messed up.
It wasn’t the Huskies’ last chance, but it was their best chance to turn into a victory a game that for a quarter looked to be a Tigers rout. Auburn’s vaunted front seven were as advertised — they ended up with five sacks and nine tackles for loss — but a touchdown at that moment likely would have been decisive.
After being bludgeoned in the first quarter, the Huskies defense began to control and then dominate an Auburn offense that dazzled early with misdirection and deception. The offense worked past an early Browning interception — as well as the absence of All-America LT Trey Adams, who stayed home with a sore back — to amass 398 yards.
When the Huskies finally nudged ahead 16-15 in the first minute of the fourth quarter on a field goal from freshman Preston Henry, then forced Auburn to punt on its next possession, the implausible seemed plausible — a regular-season victory over an SEC team for the first time in Washington’s football history.
But Auburn on its next possession went 76 yards in 10 plays, abetted by a 15-yard face-mask penalty on CB Jordan Miller, to go up 21-16 with about six minutes left.
When UW’s final possession claimed a first down the Auburn 37, the Huskies again went haywire.
After an incompletion, they went backward three times in a row. First, a three-yard loss by Myles Gaskin, then a three-yard sack of Browning. On fourth-and-16, with 1:40 left and two timeouts, the Huskies decided not to try to pin Auburn deep with a punt. Nor did they use a timeout to plot a play.
Instead, they abruptly went for it. Auburn’s rush overwhelmed the Huskies’ disorganized protection and blasted Browning, who was penalized for intentional grounding, and twisted his ankle. Game over.
Of the earlier fumble by Browning, Petersen warned not to make bad plays worse. Then on the final offensive play, UW made a bad play worse.
For the most part, the Huskies acquitted themselves admirably in a hard place.
“There was some really good execution on a high level,” Petersen said. “Just not enough.”
Or as Aaron Fuller, the wide receiver who had a breakout game with seven catches for 135 yards, put it, “We had the game in our hands . . . We gotta finish.”
But they didn’t. Now all they have to do is win 12 games in a row to get back to where they were Saturday morning.