In 2011, during Urban Meyer’s year away from coaching, he spent much of his free time in pursuit of learning and any edge he could put to use when the right job came along. That job, of course, was Ohio State. But, before he would return to his native Ohio as the Buckeyes’ head coach, he took a trip up to Boise, Idaho, to observe Chris Petersen’s Boise State program up close.
What Petersen had accomplished at Boise was nothing short of remarkable, and it needed deeper understanding. Meyer remembered well the Broncos’ signature win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, mainly because he would never forget his wife, Shelley, pointing out to Meyer that his Florida Gators did not run enough exotic trick plays like Petersen’s Broncos used to baffle the Sooners. Meyer was in the middle of a sleepless night preparing for that year’s national championship game, and he did not want to hear it.
On Tuesday afternoon, 12 years later, Meyer and Petersen, the two active coaches with the best career winning percentage, matched wits for the first time in the Rose Bowl, and it was Meyer’s Buckeyes who were having all of the fun — for most of the day, anyway.
Big Ten champion Ohio State jumped all over Pac-12 champion Washington early and held on for a 28-23 victory in the 105th Rose Bowl Game, a contest that further humbled the down-and-out “Conference of Champions” and begged the question: What happened to the Petersen that had Meyer’s wife hounding him about letting loose a little more often?
“Very frustrating when you start the first half like we started,” Petersen said. “I had no idea why. It’s on me. It’s not these kids. They practiced hard. They’re ready to play. But we really didn’t play with that edge and that chip that we normally play with."
Petersen’s Huskies have been the class of a weakened Pac-12 the last three years, but particularly in the two years since making the league’s last College Football Playoff appearance, they’ve lost much of their bite.
Total it up, and Washington went 0-3 in three straight marquee bowl games against Alabama, Penn State and Ohio State.
“I think it means we’re close to being where we want to be,” Petersen said, “but we’re not there. You’re playing the best of the best. When you play the three teams we just got done playing the last three years, there’s very little margin for error, and you have to play your best football. We’ll keep battling, keep learning. Keep figuring out how to raise the bar.”
Washington had a shot to keep this game tight late in the second quarter. Trailing 14-3, the Huskies faced fourth-and-nine from the Ohio State 37. Petersen kept the offense on the field, and senior quarterback Jake Browning lined up in the shotgun. The large Buckeyes crowd in Pasadena, which appeared to outnumber the Washington contingent, anticipated a big play and began to build a din. But Browning would soon take a few steps back, and, instead of trying for the first down, took the snap and executed a pristine pooch punt to the Ohio State 3.
For Petersen’s Washington program, that amounted to trickery, and it was a move steeped in conservatism and playing not to lose. What was Petersen afraid of? Browning is a four-year starter, and, while his production has regressed, he is capable of completing a 10-yard pass in a tough situation.
But Petersen elected to trust his top-five defense and play field position. Only, the Buckeyes’ top-five offense, led by star quarterback Dwayne Haskins and a mean running back in Mike Weber, easily reversed the field before punting the ball back to Washington. The Huskies punted again because Browning could not connect with wide-open Aaron Fuller on third-and-five, and, a minute later, Ohio State busted the game open 21-3 on Haskins’ third touchdown pass of the first half and 50th of the season.
“That was a big, huge key to the game for those guys to score right there,” Petersen said.
The Buckeyes, who finished 13-1 and sent Meyer into his second retirement from coaching as a Rose Bowl champion, painted an ugly picture for fans of Washington and all Pac-12 programs.
Talent-wise, Ohio State probably belonged in the College Football Playoff, but this was still a team that was humiliated by Purdue, 49-20, and needed overtime to escape Maryland, 52-51. This was the worst Buckeyes defense in many years, and Washington couldn’t crack them for a touchdown until early in the fourth quarter.
The Huskies converted a fourth-and-goal from the two on a creative trick play, which called for running back Myles Gaskin, lined up as a Wildcat quarterback, to fake a handoff and throw a jump pass over the top of the Ohio State defense to Washington tight end Drew Sample.
It was exactly the type of play that Petersen became known for at Boise State, but Tuesday, it was too little, too late. The Huskies fought valiantly from there, ending the game on a 20-0 run, but their onside kick attempt was recovered by the Buckeyes with 42 seconds left.
For the first three quarters, Ohio State gave Washington, which finished the season 10-4, a blueprint for how to take the next step — it’s the same one Alabama and Clemson have followed to Monday’s CFP championship game: Find a talented quarterback, cater your offensive system to his strengths, spread the field and let your skill players win one-on-one battles in space.
“We need to look at our offense really closely, no question,” Petersen said.
In this high-flying era of college football, the Huskies seem to be neutered. But, for now, they are the best the Pac-12 has to offer.
It’s a quarterback’s game. And it's no coincidence that, the last time the Pac-12 played for a national championship, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota was the headliner as a Heisman Trophy winner.
Alabama has Tua Tagovailoa back for another season. Clemson has Trevor Lawrence for two more years. Who can the Pac-12 count on to bring it back to life on the national stage?
There is hope. In the North division, Washington will hand over its offense to Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, a former five-star recruit; Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior season, despite his billing as a top-10 pick in the NFL draft; and Stanford quarterback KJ Costello has the ability to elevate the Cardinal, too.
In the South, Kliff Kingsbury brings his “Air Raid” scheme to USC, where young and hungry JT Daniels awaits his instruction.
Tuesday was Haskins’ day. He completed 25 of 37 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. And while Meyer got the best of Petersen in his final game as Ohio State’s head coach, Haskins made Meyer’s job much easier than Petersen’s.