Chris Petersen's Process Wins Out as Huskies Defeat USC

With a tip of the cap to the late Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again. Five years ago, a Washington team led by second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian took the LA Coliseum by storm and beat the No. 18 USC Trojans 32-31 on a last-second Erik Folk field goal. 

Move forward to Thursday night. The Washington Huskies, now led by Chris Petersen, took the LA Coliseum by storm and defeated the No. 17 USC Trojans 17-12 in nowhere near as dramatic fashion. The game ended with a quarterback taking a knee. Three times. The Huskies sealed the win on a third down conversion that consisted of a simple slant pass they run every day in practice, arguably the most mundane pass play in Jonathan Smith's arsenal. 

But the win, as it was back in 2010, was absolutely unexpected and certainly shocking. 

The national storylines will focus on the failure of USC, averaging nearly 47 points a game on offense prior to Thursday, and rightly so. In fact, there’s already stories on SI.com and USA Today that are scathing in their opinion toward the Trojans, and especially Sarkisian. From their point of view, what they saw barely resembled anything they had seen to date. Until Thursday, USC’s quarterback Cody Kessler was a bonafide Heisman Trophy candidate; same for receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and the Biletnikoff Award. And Adoree Jackson was being rightly touted as the heir apparent to Shaq Thompson in terms of his ability to change a game in all three phases. 

All three of their individual aspirations can now be thrown in the same dumpster fire where Sarkisian finds himself. But this piece really isn’t about him, and it’s not about USC.

In the 12 days between Washington’s 30-24 loss to California and their win over USC, something happened - but it wasn’t anything glaring that showed up on the field, save for one player - Myles Gaskin. Gaskin’s 134-yard rushing performance was one Husky fans will talk about for some time. 

But freshman quarterback Jake Browning continued to look like a freshman, often plagued by erratic throws but made plays when his team needed him most. The offensive line was once again a patchwork of players knitted together with youth as the underlying fabric. The defense continued to show why they are the stingiest in the league when it comes to points. And special teams continued to perform at a consistently high level.

Those were all things we saw against California in a loss. But the bye week gave Petersen and his team just that extra time to hone the game plan, to hammer home the physicality required to beat a team like USC on the road. And they eliminated mistakes. They won the all-important turnover battle.

And Petersen won his battle of wits over Steve Sarkisian. Petersen launched a trademark trick play - a double pass from Browning to Marvin Hall to Josh Perkins - for a touchdown right in the zone Sarkisian expected. He said as much during the week. He knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop it. 

Sarkisian gave the Huskies even more help when he used a couple of key time outs in the second half to where he only had one left and the Trojans were driving late and hoping to take the lead. After UW BUCK Travis Feeney sacked Kessler at the Washington 28 yard line, Sarkisian decided to kick a field goal on 4th-and-9 in an attempt to narrow the lead to two with 3:44 left in the game. 

Former Mercer Island product Alex Wood hit the crossbar from 46 yards out and the Huskies took over from there. 

Sarkisian would later say with the sack, it was the right call to try and kick and then rely on his defense to get the ball back. But with only one time out Washington would have been able to draw so much clock off that by the time the Trojans had a chance to get the ball back they would have had a minute and change and no time outs in which to drive at least 40 yards for an opportunity for a game-winning field goal. 

Many would say that Sarkisian’s plan was optimistic at best, desperate at worst. Either way, the plan became moot when the ball bounded off the crossbar and all the Huskies had to do was find a first down to salt away the remaining time. The use of USC’s time outs was similar to Washington’s last win at the Coliseum, except in that case then-Head Coach Lane Kiffin never used them at all while the Huskies were milking the clock down for one final field goal to win it all.

Washington’s head coach at the time? Steve Sarkisian. 

For Washington’s third-year players and up, those either recruited or coached by Sarkisian and his staff - this game was a fitting bookend, an exclamation point to wrap up the chapter of their purple and gold careers when it came to the man that brought them there. 

Husky receiver Jaydon Mickens was the one that put the final nail in USC’s coffin Thursday night, a catch on a simple 6-yard slant pass from Browning that gave Washington the first down they needed to assume the victory formation. Mickens grew up a Trojan fan, had never played in the Coliseum before Thursday.

“This is big, but it’s no surprise to me and my teammates because we worked hard for this,” Mickens would say of the game. “It meant a lot.”

Feeney had the game of his life, finishing with seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. 

“Born and raised a Cali guy, this is huge,” Feeney said of the win. “I’ve only dreamt as a little kid. Coming first as a Cal fan I always wanted to play USC, never thinking it would happen. Finally getting a chance to play them and just getting a win is remarkable.”

The story written out of Thursday’s nationally-televised game should be one that highlights the development of Petersen’s Pups and what they were able to achieve against incredible odds. USC came into the game 17.5 point favorites. The last time Washington played in the Coliseum they lost handily, 40-17. It wasn’t a contest. 

While Sarkisian is only results-driven, Petersen loves to reverse-engineer his wins. When his team defeats an opponent, it’s the culmination of a week spent preparing, practicing, and playing as one unit for each other, always doing things right. 

“I’m proud of our guys,” he said post-game. “Really proud of how hard they competed. I usually always am and that’s kinda been our mission and our message… ‘just to keep playing hard, playing with great toughness, playing with great effort’ and that’s what I saw out there.

“This is one they can feel good about. I said this last week to some of these guys. You can feel that we’re pointed in the right direction; we just have a lot of young guys that are going to continue to get better. I’m just really happy for those guys. We just keep talking about working hard, keep talking about being detailed, and every day matters day and every film rep matters. We kind of beat them over the head with this stuff. If you don’t have some success sooner than later it gets hard to stick to the plan. This will give them a little juice.”

In Chris Petersen's pigskin world, everything matters. But more importantly for Petersen and the Washington Huskies, a win validates that belief and adds credibility to a staff working to instill a young team with great habits and confidence. 

It means what they are doing is working, even if it isn’t always pretty or effective - or that the progress being made is inevitably slower than they (or the fans) would like. 

And that might be the scariest takeaway of all; with less than 300 offensive yards to their name, the Washington Huskies were still able to go on the road and defeat a program with a top-10 nationally-ranked offense at their disposal. 

For Petersen, the process continues - and progress is most definitely being made. 


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