Petersen Plays It Too Safe

With all due respect to Randy Newman, there was a different type of Trouble in Paradise Saturday afternoon at Aloha Stadium, as the Washington Huskies clearly weren’t prepared for what they saw from the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in their 17-16 win that qualifies as a very small step in the right direction - but not much more than that.

“I think it’s going to be a big wakeup call,” UW Head Coach Chris Petersen said post-game. “It’s just hard to win games against anybody. That’s the point I’m trying to make to our guys. To come over here, in this environment, especially early in the season when everybody’s got mojo…and it showed up. We’ve just got to be more consistent.”

Excuses aside, two things became evident after the first quarter of the game: 1) Hawaii is much better than their 1-11 2013 record would suggest, and 2) Washington set their team up not to lose. The Huskies frankly played like a group that wanted to make sure Hawaii had to take the game from them instead of just taking it themselves.

That’s not what most expected out of a team hot off a 9-4 season and convincing bowl win. But the 2014 Washington Huskies aren’t like the 2013 version in many respects, chief among them the lack of a leader on offense. That job was placed squarely on Jeff Lindquist’s shoulders Saturday after the redshirt sophomore from Mercer Island was deemed Washington’s starting quarterback.

In the days leading up to the game, Petersen and Washington Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith lavished praise on both Lindquist and redshirt freshman challenger Troy Williams for all their hard work and competitive spirit in spring and fall, but Lindquist beat Williams out for one main reason; he didn’t make critical mistakes. Sure, Williams was arguably the better passer in fall camp, completing more plays down the field and making more things happen offensively, but he was also a liability at times. When Petersen’s horn sounded during fall camp, that signaled a turnover - and more often than not it was due to a Williams miscue.

So there you have it. A quarterback competition won by a quarterback based not on what he did, but based on what he didn’t do. It may seem like a parsing of words, but the phasing is important if for no other reason than it reinforces the point that Petersen and Smith truly had no idea how Lindquist would react in his first ever start. Instead of saying, ‘Go out and win this game, Jeff!’, it was ‘Make sure you don’t lose it for us, Jeff’.

It’s a vital distinction in the maturation of a quarterback. And give Lindquist credit - early on the stage didn’t seem too big, the lights too bright. He completed a 91-yard pitch and catch to John Ross that was a thing of beauty. He was making great decisions and even if an offensive series ended in a punt it wasn’t the end of the world.

The second half was a much different story. Lindquist led eight straight drives that finished with Korey Durkee booting the ball away after having only one in the first half - the first drive of the game - end that way. Washington’s first seven offensive drives of the second half accounted for a total of 34 yards. Lindquist ended the second half 3-15 for 28 yards. After a strong passing start, Lindquist suddenly couldn’t hit warm Waikiki water if he fell out of a boat.

“If we knew exactly what it was it wouldn’t happen,” Lindquist said, matter-of-factly when asked why things went south so quickly.

It’s obviously a much different time and age, but Don James was quoted after Washington had won their 1991 National Championship about their quarterback - Billy Joe Hobert - and his first career start that year. It happened to be a rare conference opener, at Stanford.

James said, much like Petersen did with Lindquist, that since there was the unknown factor with how a first-year quarterback would respond on the road they just went about their business game-planning like Hobert had always been the starter and that nothing would change. He reacted like a seasoned vet, leading the Huskies to an emphatic win.

Lindquist did exactly what Petersen said had gotten him the job in the first place; he didn’t make a critical error at a key time. You could argue that taking a 16-yard sack the series after Hawaii had made it a one-point game was costly, but Lindquist was bailed out by a 62-yard Durkee punt that turned the field position back in Washington’s favor.

In fact, Lindquist actually did some bailing of his own when the SS Husky seemed to be foundering. He came up with a vital fumble recovery after Lavon Coleman coughed up the ball. The redshirt frosh from Lompoc came back strong, running six times for 37 yards as Washington came up with some four-minute offense when they needed it the most.

Perhaps it was simply a matter of going on the road for the first game, having a quarterback making his first career start, a BCS team’s hubris - or whatever other explanation you choose as your own - but Petersen showed little of the bravado, creativity, toughness, and heart that exemplified his 92-12 coaching career at Boise State. If anything, his body language - that of a caged lion pacing up and down the sidelines - suggested he wasn’t entirely sure of his team’s preparation.

He didn’t act like it was business as usual, and maybe that’s because it wasn’t.

“We knew we would have some rough patches,” Petersen said, underselling it by quite a bit. He spoke post-game about contingencies and the like for the things Hawaii would show, but also fully admitted that they were in the dark because UH Head Coach Norm Chow had changed so much heading into this season.

The Huskies had too, including a full coaching and training staff (minus lone holdover Jordan Paopao). Smaller, quicker offensive linemen were replaced with behemoths like 375-pound James Atoe, and Washington’s offensive line acted like they had put on the wrong kind of pounds during the off-season. They appeared slow and unable to cope with Hawaii’s defensive front when trying to impose themselves in the run game. It was only during the end where they seemed comfortable getting yards between the tackles, and that may have been more a function of UW wearing UH out through tempo.

It was as if Washington’s coaches thought coasting through in third gear would have been plenty enough to handle the Hawaiian sand. Everyone who analyzed the game thought so, except the Rainbow Warriors themselves. And they gave Lindquist enough to look at to really rattle him in the second half when it mattered.

Ironically, Petersen’s game plan worked. Defensively, the Huskies gave up 424 yards to Hawaii, but no play longer than 29 yards. Joey Iosefa had 143 yards on 30 bruising carries, but only two carries longer than nine yards. Pete Kwiatkowski had the bend-but-don’t-break thing working on Saturday, and senior nose tackle Danny Shelton had an NFL-worthy stat line: 12 tackles, including six solo stops, three tackles for loss, and two sacks. Hawaii native Hauoli Kikaha had five tackles and a sack.

Washington won the special teams battle despite a truly awful debut by Jaydon Mickens at punt return. Outside of giving up a 40-yard return to start, Hawaii’s next-best return was 18 yards. And Durkee had a monster day, punting eight times for a 42.5 yard average. Cameron Van Winkle buried his only field goal chance from 36 yards.

And offensively? All Petersen asked of his starting quarterback was to not stink up the joint. In short, he wanted him to not be offensive. And Lindquist wasn’t. He won’t want to watch the second half film, but he didn’t wilt in the final drives when the Huskies needed steady handoffs at tempo. It may seem a trivial point - I mean, how tough can a handoff be?

When you’re on the road and the lead is in doubt and you’re in a place you haven’t experienced in at least two years, minds have a funny way of playing tricks on you - no matter how well prepared you may be.

“When it’s all good, it’s good,” Petersen said of Lindquist. “But when it’s not it can be confusing and hard. It’s good for him to have to go through some of those things and we have to get better at some of those situations.”

Fans have to hope the coaches get better from the same situations as well, namely trust in their quarterback and the ability to put them in positions to succeed. When it’s clear a passer’s feet are so jumpy as to question whether or not they are auditioning for Dancing With the Stars instead of playing a game, maybe it’s time to hammer the run game and use those feet to get yards down the field?

Jonathan Smith’s best play calls of the day were the ones that had UW’s best playmakers with the ball in space. And it wasn’t a surprise that all those calls happen to involve John Ross. But late in the game Smith called Lindquist’s number to run - and it was the best thing he could have done. It allowed the 246-pound Lindquist to do what he was doing best at that time, namely scramble and get downfield.

The play worked, but instead of calling more read zones and option opportunities, Smith dialed up passes. Lindquist would eventually be asked to quick kick on that series.

With Cyler Miles back from suspension, the quarterback battle is apparently back on, starting Sunday. “We’re going to do things the right way,” Petersen said when asked if Miles would start against Eastern Washington. “We’re going to look at this with a fine-tooth comb and figure out what the best is and we’ll go that direction. I’m not trying to…we’ll figure it out early next week and go from there.”

Washington fans should hope that whoever gets the start versus the Eagles does so without a leash attached. Petersen should take a cue from the Don James playbook of man management and act as if their starting quarterback has always been there and game plan for them to win the game, instead of making sure they just don’t lose it.

Because they almost did on Saturday. Top Stories