Don’t expect the Huskies to rescue their woebegone passing attack by calling up the kid receivers. Coach Chris Petersen says they’re not ready.
Halfway through the regular season, the Washington Huskies offense is sixth in points per game in the Pac-12 Conference (34), eighth in yards per pass attempt (8.0), ninth in total passing yards (244.7), and 10th in third-down conversions (40 percent).
If someone had told any discerning Huskies fan in August that those would be the mid-season numbers, he or she likely would have said, “How did Jake Browning get a fifth year of eligibility?”
But no. The 2019 offense is being led by the successor Jake, Jacob Eason, supposedly the biggest and best in the Jacobian royal lineage. Not Jake Haener, who transferred. Not back-up Jacob Sirmon.
And the UW stats included the three opponents from the UW’s non-conference bakery of cupcakes: Eastern Washington, Hawaii and BYU. In conference, hoo-boy — 1-2, with losses to Cal (at home!) and Stanford and a win over a USC team with a fifth-year senior starting his second game at quarterback.
For his final two seasons at UW, Browning was cudgeled by many fans. His arm wasn’t strong enough, his accuracy only average and his pass/run judgments too often dubious, critics said.
So there was Eason Saturday at The Farm, completing 16 of 36 passes for 206 yards with a long of 37, and running reverse-pivot scrambles in the wrong direction. In a ghastly 23-13 loss to Stanford, it was the full Browning.
“We don’t ever like when the quarterback is reversing his field and running around like that,” said coach Chris Petersen. “So, yeah.”
NOW he tells his QB.
Something is amiss in Montlake.
Or is there such a word as, adrop?
At his weekly presser Monday, Petersen reported the Huskies dropped five against the Cardinal, including three by his best receiver, senior Aaron Fuller. He otherwise had a career game of nine catches and 171 yards on 17 targets. The other two drops were by TE Hunter Bryant, who did not have a good night. UW’s second-leading receiver had one catch for eight yards among five targets.
The rest of the pass-eligible guys combined had 17 targets. Seven were caught, only one by a wideout.
The pass mess wasn’t Washington’s only problem against Stanford. But it seems to loom as the largest. Yet least surprising.
The receivers group was seen as the weakest link the morning after the 28-23 loss in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State, even though Browning threw 54 times, completing 35 for 315 yards to nearly the same group. Trailing 28-3, the Huskies had no choice but to heave.
At least Browning would spread the ball around. But apparently Eason and offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan trust only Fuller.
“We would like some other guys to get involved, for sure,” Petersen said. “We never like it when the ball is going to one guy. That makes it easy for everybody on the other side.”
The Huskies’ heralded recruiting class contained the possibility of immediate help from freshmen Puka Nacua, Austin Osborne, Marquis Spiker and Trey Lowe. There were also veteran returnees such as seniors Chico McClatcher and Quentin Pounds, junior Ty Jones and sophomore Terrell Bynum.
But through a variety of reasons, those eight players have combined so far to catch 14 passes for 168 yards. Modest contributions have come from senior Andre Baccellia (19) and sophomore TE Cade Otton (12) and the running backs (a combined 16), but the underwhelming-ness fairly screams.
Petersen suggested that a part of problem has been that the youngest players aren’t earning game playing time at practice.
“You’ve got to do it in practice,” he said. “You can’t do it half the time, or three-quarters of the time. Now, maybe do we need to rotate some more guys in there? Actually we’ve been trying to do that with certain personnel groups.
“But they haven’t been getting called maybe as much as we thought they were.”
He didn’t offer an explanation as to who was responsible for that. So we are left to speculate — Petersen pointed out that reporters don’t watch practice, failing to mention that’s his decision — so I believe the coach is deliberately withholding ordnance until he gets something from the president of Ukraine.
I realize you may be skeptical, but Petersen wouldn’t be the first to use such tactics.
More seriously, Petersen emphasized the kids aren’t ready.
“They need to be more detailed to what we’re doing out there,” he said. “They’re making progress. They really are. They just aren’t where the other guys are right now.
“We’re not going to not put our best guys out there because we think we got better players sitting on the sidelines. That makes no sense.”
But it isn’t clear what does make sense, particularly in time for the next game at 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) in Tucson against South Division-leading Arizona (4-1, 2-0).
Petersen said the Huskies should have run the ball more against Stanford. But that option against the Wildcats is diminished by the potential absence of RB Richard Newton, who had 64 yards in 10 carries before going out with an ankle injury in the third quarter Saturday. Petersen was vague about Newton’s availability, but didn’t rule it out, despite the appearance of seriousness.
“If we’re going to second-guess, which we always do as coaches, and look back, we probably should have ran the ball more,” he said. “That’s what we were doing pretty effectively.”
A good example was the first possession of the third quarter. Down 13-10, the Huskies had a fourth-and-2 at the Stanford 13. The options were field goal, run or pass. Despite Newton having run for 27 yards on three carries in the drive, Petersen chose door No. 3. Eason’s short slant pass to Baccellia was wide and low. Bad choices everywhere.
Too often in the passing game, the Huskies are coming up with neither the right play calls nor proper execution. As a partial result, Eason is seventh in the conference in passing percentage (65.7), 15th in yards per attempt (8.0) and eighth in efficiency (149.7).
Not what anyone had in mind halfway through the likely one-and-done year in Montlake for the greatest Jake of them all.