BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 11/26/2019

Thiel: The season that got away from Petersen

Coach Chris Petersen said that “a little bit of panic” helped doom the Huskies against Colorado. That speaks to a leadership void among coaches and players.

Chris Petersen has been unable to halt Washington’s tailspin. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

This Huskies football season got away from coach Chris Petersen.

It’s hard to say how or why, since media can’t watch practice and the players are trained to avoid honesty in public. But the conclusion nevertheless is visible and inescapable, following Pac-12 Conference defeats to 4-6 Cal, 5-5 Stanford and 4-6 Colorado. The 20-14 loss Saturday to the Buffaloes in Boulder was a stark depiction of a team getting worse instead of better, with minimal excuses for injuries.

Even at his presser Monday, things got a little worse.

After denying that Colorado wanted the game more than Washington, despite the obvious domination of both lines, Petersen was asked whether the Huskies were missing an edge in their play.

“I don’t think there was an edge that was missing,” he said. “I thought there was a little bit of panic that went on.”

Really?

That isn’t the sign of a well-prepared team.

Petersen was referring to perhaps the worst half of his six-year Montlake tenure — 91 yards of offense in the first two quarters, including 10 yards rushing. The Huskies had four three-and-out drives, and the only other possession, the one that ventured onto foreign soil, was an interception of Jacob Eason that barely missed being another pick-six.

“We had so many three-and-outs, couldn’t get into a rhythm in the first half,” he said. “I think that’s what happens sometimes when we can’t get something going. The (opponents) hold the ball and they’re driving, and we’re kind of on our heels.

“We just had way too many three-and-outs. I think that changes the chemistry and the mojo, for sure.”

Even adjusting for the fact that these are kids and not NFL pros, the notion of panic settling in 10 games into a high-powered program’s season is startling. It speaks to a void in leadership from coaches and from players, particularly when the deficit was a manageable 13-0.

This is a program that had been to three consecutive New Year’s Six bowls and twice won conference championships. The ’19 Huskies certainly played well at times, and provided commendable efforts against the conference’s two ranked teams, Oregon and Utah. So to get shoved around by the Buffs — entering the game the CU defense had a season total of nine sacks, and picked up five Saturday — was a study in unexpected futility.

When another question about panic followed, Petersen realized he was out on a limb, and tried to scoot back.

“I’m not sure if (panic) is the right word,” he said. “But I know it’s very unsettling and there’s a tendency to press a little bit more.

“I think the good teams can just shake it off and reload and go make a play, and we haven’t been able to do that. We need to get into a rhythm, and when we do, it’s like, ‘OK, why can’t this go on at all times?’ That’s the thing that’s been perplexing and a little frustrating.”

Petersen implied that the Huskies aren’t a good team, which is true, but it’s rare to hear such candor from him. And his season-long inability to diagnose the source of the problem, at least one he’s willing to share, is puzzling.

One factor inhibiting the Huskies could be the awkward situation involving Eason.

He’s a much-recruited local hero from Lake Stevens who went far away to Georgia, where he started as a freshman. After returning from an injury, he was beaten out for the starting job in Athens and transferred back home to Washington.

After the NCAA-mandated one-year sit-out, Eason was all but a lock to start the season. But his ascension prompted the transfers of not one but two competitors, Jake Haener and Colson Yankoff, leaving the backup job to Jacob Sirmon, a redshirt freshman not close to Eason’s caliber.

And it’s likely that, despite his modest season numbers, Eason is a one-and-done headed in April to the NFL. Whether this corporate-culture ruthlessness has generated resentment among players is not known. But it is reasonable to ask about the quality of Eason’s leadership.

“I don’t put that on him — he’s the new guy,” Petersen said. “One thing I know about him, he’s an awesome kid. That kid — guy drops a pass, protection’s not right, game doesn’t go well — he doesn’t even kind of point fingers. That is not him at all.

“I think his leadership is fine. He’s grown this year as a leader. I think of the guys that have been around here a long time. I know he’s the quarterback. But I think he’s done a nice job.”

Well, Eason indeed may be awesome, fine, good. But perhaps he should have pointed fingers, including at himself. Maybe he should have taken animated charge of a faltering, fragile team.

In the second half, the Huskies did muster two 75-yard touchdown drives. But they needed a third. On the final two possessions of the game, UW had eight plays that combined netted minus-3 yards.

It’s probably unfair to put so much on Eason. As Petersen said, he’s the new kid. But Petersen went to considerable trouble to obtain and maintain the new kid’s services, even knowing he was probably a one-year rental. More was expected of him than “a nice job.”

But if it isn’t upon Eason to pull the team out of a panic attack, then it is up to the coaches. None in Petersen’s crew has managed it so far.

Fortunately for all of them, there is one game left, Friday at sold-out Husky Stadium against Washington State. The 6-5 Cougars have lost six Apple Cups in a row, and sense their best chance yet to swing their sword in a manner that finally draws purple blood.

Petersen has done so much for the UW program that there’s no way a single season that got away puts him in any professional jeopardy. But lose an Apple Cup to Mike Leach, and his staff will learn a little more about how to manage a panic attack.

 


YourThoughts

  • Talkjoc

    The only person who should have a panic attack is the OC. Cause he’ll be packing his bags. Deservedly so.

    • art thiel

      It isn’t all Hamdan’s fault. But surely nothing is working between him and Eason.

      • Talkjoc

        It’s a start.

  • ReebHerb

    Can Chris Petersen grow with the job? Pete Carroll became excellent at USC after being a good coach for years. Colorado overloaded one side to catch Eason’s tendency to back out of the pocket. The solution may have been as simple as taking the ball under center. The coaches must have counters to the other’s game plan.

    • art thiel

      Petersen is fortunate to be up against Mike Leach, who doesn’t change anything for anyone.

    • LA Dawgman

      Ding ding ding. “Can Petersen grow with the job”. This. And I guess we shall see.

  • Effzee

    I don’t know if I believe that he will fire Hamdan. That would be a pretty big crush to Petersen’s ego. He seems like the kind of guy who will try to make it work, and let his stubbornness take him down with the ship. I hope not. I hope he can objectively evaluate himself and his staff. I’m not familiar with a lot of the assistant coaches, but to the naked eye, the offense seems to be being coached, largely, by grown children.

    I wonder if there would be any value to hiring an offensive assistant who has some cache. Some history and experience with other winning programs. Is Coach Pete the kind of guy who can be humble and open to hiring from outside of his “system,” or is he kind of like one of those coaches who only wants his own hand-picked disciples surrounding him?

    Speaking of his system, I know its this weird “multiples” philosophy, but where did it come from? Is he from a specific coaching tree? Is this a handed down thing, like another version of the Erickson/Gilby Snohomish offense? Did he make it up out of his head, like Mike Leach did with the Air Raid? I’m very curious.

    • Husky73

      Seemingly, nothing is new. It’s 11 vs. 11. Leach’s offense is what Jerry Rhome ran in the 1960’s. Various offensive set-ups are similar to the single wing (and direct snap, later called the shotgun) of the 1930’s. Sid Gillman ran a multi receiver passing attack with John Hadl, Lance Alworth and Gary Garrison in the AFL. He also mixed in two great running backs in Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe.

      • art thiel

        There is little new in offensive football philosophy, just better players and information, and a greater willingness to innovate.

      • Effzee

        That’s all well and good, but I’m still curious about where Petersen’s variable, no-philosophy philosophy’s roots are. Not anyone else’s.

  • Husky73

    The Huskies have had a down year. It happens….to Florida State, to Michigan State, to West Virginia, to Texas, to Purdue, to UCLA (again) and to Texas Tech. Don James (who apparently never lost a game) had a 5-6 year, two 6-5 and a 7-5. James also lost 5 bowl games.

    • art thiel

      They named a rock group after you: Deep Purple.

    • 1coolguy

      But what James did was realize he needed a very good D1 OC and hired Gilbertson and had his finest years, including the national championship. Clueless Hamdan is not Gilby, and if he isn’t replaced, next year will be just as dismal.
      This will be WSU’s year to spank the Dawgs, who, let’s remember, lost 9 of 11 starters on defense, and had the #1 tackler in college, an all american, in BBK. Gaines starts for LA, and I’m sure others are doing well in the the NFL.

      • dawgcw

        James also retooled his defense after a couple of less than stellar seasons in the late 80s that directly contributed to the 90’s defensive dominance, we are all still waiting for Pete’s adjustments to the offense that has been regressing since the playoff season

  • ll9956

    Well done, Art. You echoed my thoughts closely. It seems to me that one of the most important responsibilities of coaches is to get the team mentally ready to play. In this regard the entire UW coaching staff failed abysmally. And this after a bye no less!!! If the Dawgs play in a way even remotely similar to the Colorado debacle, the Cougs passing attack will slice them to ribbons. Petersen has a way of making improvements whenever he falls short. He has commented that there is anger amongst his players. If so, that’s a healthy sign. If Petersen and his players come focused and ready to play this week, the Cougs might find the Dawgs a bit feisty and not a cakewalk.

    • art thiel

      The high degree of embarrassment from the COL has to be worth at least a field goal, right?

      • Talkjoc

        Ouch.

  • jafabian

    No senior leadership, no identity, no player development, no drive. Those are what have been lacking this season. For a team that is chock full of four star recruits I’m puzzled at what’s happened this season, especially among the receivers. Since John Ross left no one has replaced him. Dante Pettis, as good as he was, wasn’t as dangerous. I thought Chico McClatcher would but after a promising sophomore season he’s done nothing but regress.

    Sports is a cyclical animal. It isn’t time to panic but it’s been very disappointing considering all the pieces on the table.

    • LA Dawgman

      Petersen needs to make tweaks to his coaching staff, player development and conditioning, and how the entire program is structured and run. But can he do that?!?! So far the answer has been no.

      • jafabian

        He probably will do some minor changes but for the most part let all coaches and players know this season isn’t acceptable. The players, especially the seniors, will get a lot of lectures. I bet some former Dawgs will be brought in to get players to understand what it means to bleed purple.

      • art thiel

        You’re talking a program makeover after one 6-5 season. Nah.

    • art thiel

      Ross is a once-a-generation game-breaker. And Vea/Gaines are NFL starters.

      They lost a lot of talent. And you’re right, this is a down cycle.

  • LA Dawgman

    A large majority of what has been happening ever since the Alabama thrashing in early 2017, has been the lack of insight and willingness to evolve and change as a head coach. This is mostly on Chris Petersen, and it should be a major wakeup call. Petersen is what’s known as a system coach – he recruits and brings in players and staff that ‘fit’ his system. By the way, system coaches are extremely rigid and don’t deal well with change or “mixing things up”. Its tough for system coaches to look in the mirror and say “ I have change things… something must change”, because they built their program based on a system and scheme for a long time. How can you blame Coach Peterson, he like .850 or .860 all-time.

    The problem is, system coaches do well against inferior teams and programs, they don’t do well against great teams! Good coaching staff make adjustments and scheme once they’ve figured out your program and scheme. Petersen’s schemes worked great in the lowly Mountain West Conference, and it worked for a few years in the Pac-12, but coaches have figured Petersen’s system and scheme against it. That is why we have seen a slow gradual slide in performance and wins, in spite of bringing in better and better personnel.

    It would behoove Petersen to fly and visit Swinney, Meyer, Day, Saban, etc and learn how to build a program based on getting top flight players and “scheming to those player’s strengths, not the other way around. Meyer is/was great at this, Riley is good at it, Saban is a master at it. And all top flight NFL coaches do this too – Belichick, Carroll, Reid, etc.

    This is the reality and its a very tough pill for Petersen to swallow. But the sooner he realizes what he needs to do, perhaps he can get this program headed in the right direction.

    • woofer

      Nicely stated. The old Boise State package is well past its due date. It feels like Petersen is in a state of denial about this and desperately wants to believe that just a little tweaking will suffice. But if he doggedly clings to his old formula, things will only get worse — although perhaps not this week against Leach. If the Huskies find a way to tank against the Cougars, a trip to the psychiatrist’s couch may be in order.

      • art thiel

        Some would argue that he’s gone conservative with the big program, and he should revert to the unpredictability of his Boise State days.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think Petersen is so locked to his system that he can’t adapt to players’ strengths. His “OKG” theme is largely a myth because he has no choice but to take in the best players with little regard other matters. He’s had a down year in talent and I think Hamdan wasn’t up to the task at OC. Those items are fixable.