Lack of Identity Killing Husky Hopes

SEATTLE - Chris Petersen was quick to take all the blame Saturday night after the Washington Huskies lost 20-13 to the Stanford Cardinal, quick to acknowledge that there's clearly a ways to go in this ongoing process that has become Husky Football. From the outside looking in, there's no way to truly tell how Husky Football is going to go as the season unfolds.

They could end up winning the rest of their games, they could end up losing them all in spectacular fashion - like they did Saturday in front of 66,512 fans at Husky Stadium. It feels like the program is on that thin of a knife edge, and one play here or there could spell the difference.

To the casual observer, that one play was a poorly timed and executed fake punt attempt on a 4th-and-9 with 7:37 left a tie ball game that left Stanford with the ball at Washington's 47-yard line. Six plays later, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan called his own number on a run-pass option and scampered five yards for what ended up being the game winning play.

"That was on me," Petersen said of the call to go for it on fourth down with some trademark gadgetry. "I was trying to make some things happen. That’s not on those guys at all."

Trying to make things happen: Petersen could be accused of trying to put the round peg in the square hole a few times Saturday, including going for it on fourth down on the opening drive of the third quarter, and taking the option of a re-kick at the end of the game instead of taking the ball at the 35-yard line after the Cardinal had kicked the ball out of bounds.

"We were trying to create something," Petersen would repeatedly say. "We were trying to the get the ball in our playmakers’ hands and see if we could get something done."

No Washington fan is ever going to tell Chris Petersen not to get the ball in John Ross's hands as many times as he can. The problem with that line of thinking is that Chris Petersen never apparently thought about trying to get the ball in Ross's hands all game, apart from their first kickoff return - which he housed but was called back for a block in the back, and the last kickoff return - which netted UW 13 yards. Counter that with Stanford's ability to find Ty Montgomery the ball running, passing, and returning. The senior star ended up with 149 all-purpose yards, compared to 54 for Ross.

"Having to re-kick at the 35-yard line for starting field position wasn’t bad, usually we’d take that," Petersen said.

So what made the situation so unusual? And for that matter, what made the situation for the fake punt so unusual that the coaches felt the need to create something that wasn't there, especially in a tie ball game?

It's not as if the offense had all of a sudden slowed down to a screeching halt. It hadn't reached the red zone one time all game. But with 7:37 on the clock in the fourth quarter and UW at their own 47-yard line, the Huskies didn't need to even get that far. Three more first downs and they would have been at Stanford's 23-yard line - a 40-yard field goal attempt for a kicker in Cameron Van Winkle that hasn't missed a kick all year. Heck, even a 50-yarder is within his comfort zone, so two first downs should have been doable.

Apparently not. The amount of respect Washington had for Stanford's defense bordered on ridiculous by that point, so they ended up grasping for straws and hoping they could manufacture something against a system they'd only solved once all game long. And even that one UW touchdown-scoring drive was aided by Cardinal personal foul and pass interference penalties.

The real question post-game was: Why did Petersen snap and go rogue? Why did he so quickly and decisively move away from what had put the Huskies in the position of being tied with the No. 14 team in the country at home? What did he see differently from the 66,000 others inside Husky Stadium?

The game was a defensive see-saw affair almost from the opening kick. A big Montgomery return to start gave the impression the Cardinal might just pull a repeat of last year's opener, but the Huskies locked down and forced Stanford into a field goal. Stanford has been poor in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns all season long, so the blueprint was in place: Find some offense somewhere - maybe a big play over the top; lock it down on defense and keep the Cardinal out of the end zone; win the field position battle; find some key turnovers to get the momentum in your favor.

In short, play some old school football against a team that, in Pete Kwiatkowski's words, is a bit of an oddball in this new era of spread and chuck. If Stanford wanted to play in a phone booth, Washington was going to see if there was room for two. And for a long time there was.

When Shaq Thompson stripped Stanford's Remound Wright, scooped the ball up and scored from 32 yards out, it was easy to forget the Huskies should have actually been ahead at that point 14-13, but going into halftime tied wasn't the worst consolation prize - especially knowing the Huskies would get the ball to start the second half.

That opening third quarter drive mirrored the other UW scoring drives in the fact that the Cardinal were trying to hand the Huskies points by penalty. A personal foul on James Vaughters and an illegal hands to the face penalty by Zach Hoffpauir gave Washington at their 46.

By this time, the tone had been set. Neither offense was setting the world on fire; the defenses were dictating the day. Washington's special teams had done a great job of turning the field position game upside down, forcing Stanford into long fields. This was a physical, grind-it-out game that would be decided by game management.

Stanford won the game of game management by three touchdowns; it wasn't even close. When Hogan was coughing the ball up or throwing picks, Cardinal Head Coach David Shaw didn't panic. He didn't go-go gadget or try to go against the flow. He stuck to the strength of his group, namely his defense, and allowed Hogan to manage the game in a way that put him in the best chance to be successful.

The same can't be said for the Huskies. Washington's Lavon Coleman averaged four yards a carry against a very stingy Stanford defense, yet was only given 14 carries. Ross was non-existent as a run threat, and Miles had little opportunity to be put in spots where he could let his athleticism and playmaking ability shine. He's great at the edge read zone stuff where he can get the end looking inside, tuck it and gain yards. But in the pass game he's either given too little time to find developing routes, or he doesn't trust himself to throw downfield.

But Cyler Miles didn't lose this game for Washington. The offense didn't lose this game for Washington. And honestly, it's not really even on the coaches - although they are the ones that should rightly get any ire levied at them from fans.

You know what cost Washington this game? The process. Petersen foreshadowed this exact scenario a couple weeks ago when he talked how, in the short term, the process was going to be more important than the results. We saw that Saturday.

The clear lack of identity in any facet of Washington's play is what killed their hopes at a victory, and at the same time the clear philosophies Stanford exhibited and understanding of what to do when the game was on the line underscored exactly where the two programs are right now. Even Shaw could see it.

"They're in a process right now," Shaw said, post-game. "They're putting some guys in positions where they weren't recruited to play. This is a talented team, and this is a team that you're glad you play early - you play them late and they could be on a roll."

Or they could be stuck in the mud. That's why this bye week comes at a real crossroads in the early days of the Petersen era. They have two weeks to get their house in order before they go on the road for two season-defining games. The definition is still very much up in the air; what will Husky Football be going forward? They have to figure out what works well for them offensively and continue on the path they are on defensely while allowing a young secondary to mature in front of our eyes.

Steps are being made, but at a cost. Until Smith puts his foot in the ground and decides who the Washington Huskies are going to be on offense, they can't get to the next step of nailing down the details of that identity and honing in on what they do well. And more importantly, that identity will allow them to lean on certain fundamentals, instead of panicking and relying on creativity and manufacturing offense when nothing is there. It's that kind of smoke-and-mirrors approach that may have worked in the Mountain West from time to time, but in the Pac-12 you'll pay a heavy price for that kind of naivety.

Trick plays may be fun to practice and run, but the joy is quickly sucked out if they aren't properly deployed. And when you're in the fourth quarter of a tie game versus one of the top teams in the league and you feel like you have to run a trick play to win the game?

You've already lost.


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