A 12-10 loss to Cal may be the low point of Petersen’s Washington tenure, especially after benching QB Jake Browning for two series, and getting worse than nothing for his trouble.
Chris Petersen said he wanted to “shake things up,” he said, by benching in the third quarter his four-year starting quarterback, Jake Browning. The Huskies coach succeeded. Whether Washington (6-3, 4-2) will stop shaking is the test for the rest of a season that turned abruptly to disappointment Saturday night in Berkeley.
Redshirt freshman QB Jake Haener came in to throw a pick-six for Cal’s only touchdown in a 12-10 defeat (box) that may go down as the worst in Petersen’s five years at Washington. The 15th-ranked Huskies, 11-point favorites, gained only 128 yards and three points over the final three quarters and probably blew their shot at the Pac-12 Conference championship game and potentially a return to the Rose Bowl.
At the moment, however, they would be hard-pressed to handle the cupcakes for which their schedule has become infamous.
“We could not get anything going on offense,” Petersen said of the change at quarterback with 1:56 left in the third quarter and Huskies clinging to a 7-6 lead. “I was just trying to spark something.”
He succeeded there too, sparking a quarterback controversy that may drag down the remaining three scheduled games. Not only did Haener do just about the worst thing possible for a newbie QB — his only previous action this season was mop-up work in the blowout of North Dakota — he was kept in for a second series that, while managing a first down, went nowhere too.
For the final two possessions, Petersen went back to Browning, with similar results — a combined 11 plays for 28 yards. The final possession with seven minutes left was particularly galling, because it began at the Cal 22-yard line, thanks to a 28-yard punt return by Aaron Fuller, the best play of an otherwise dolorous season by UW special teams.
But the first play thereafter, an end-around to RB Salvon Ahmed, was blown up for a 10-yard loss. Browning seemed ready to save the day with a 23-yard completion to WR Ty Jones for a first down at the Cal 9. But a run for no gain and two incompletions (including an apparent interception that was dubiously called off) made Petersen decide to take a field goal despite the fact that UW was behind by five.
His hope was to stop the Cal offense again and get the ball back for a final try for a game-winning field goal. But the Huskies defense, which had hung tough, ran out of energy and the Bears ran out the clock over the final 4:51.
The failure to get in the end zone from the nine was perhaps the season’s low point for Browning, although Petersen tried to deflect criticism.
“We’re not pointing arrows at Jake Browning,” he said. “One thing I’m never going to do is lay down and say, ‘We’re good.’ We wanted to look at some things. I know the was some leaky protection, some dropped balls. So it’s never (all) on that guy.
“We were really, really honestly poor on offense.”
It’s true that the contributors to debacle were many, including junior Henry Roberts making his first career start at left tackle, and career rushing leader RB Myles Gaskin being held out (shoulder injury) despite warming up in pads pre-game.
But after a game-opening drive of 64 yards in 14 plays that ended with a three-yard touchdown pass from Browning to Jones, the Huskies were mostly staggered by a greatly improved Cal defense under coach Justin Wilcox, the former Washington defensive coordinator under coach Steve Sarkisian.
Browning was 11 for 21 for 148 yards and an interception, and the ground game was held to 91 yards in 33 carries.
“We never could get into our rhythm,” Petersen said. “I think our first drive was (14) plays, helped by a penalty, and we capitalized on it. After that, there was no rhythm. It was painful.”
Cal’s only touchdown was the 37-yard interception return by junior LB Evan Weaver of Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, who said to Fox TV after the game, “Shows we have a better culture than they do.”
Certainly there are those in Montlake who would like to take him up on the contention. But there can be no argument about who had the better team Saturday.
“Cal pretty much out-played us in every single phase,” said LB Ben Burr-Kervin, who again led Washington with 14 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. “Six points looks good, but put on the tape and see the missed tackles and assignments.
“We played some pretty bad football.”
All true. Also true is that the coaches did poorly too, especially the yo-yoing with the quarterbacks that did no one any good.
Petersen owned up, a little: “It really starts with us as coaches to give these guys some answers,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine Petersen going with Haener against Stanford, which lost at home to Washington State 41-38 Saturday. But in a week that figures to be rich in damage control for a season that began with high expectations, the Huskies find themselves in a place unimagined.
All is possible.
Chico McClatcher leaves team; ‘personal’ reasons
Beset by a slow recovery from two leg injuries, senior WR Chico McClatcher of Federal Way has stepped away from the team and did not make the trip to Cal, according to the Seattle Times. Against Colorado the previous Saturday, McClatcher fumbled twice.
A starting slot receiver as a sophomore in 2016, McClatcher led the Pac-12 in yards per reception that season. But a torn ACL and an ankle injury have compromised his ability to return to full speed.
“It’s a tough situation. I love that guy,” Petersen said Thursday before McClatcher’s decision was public. “He is such a wonderful kid and a football guy. We all go through things, and it is what it is.”