J. Brady McCollough looks at the 25 biggest storylines in college football heading into the season. Will Washington’s Chris Petersen refine his offense?
For the last three seasons, Chris Petersen’s Washington program has emerged as the class of the Pac-12 Conference, following a College Football Playoff appearance with two New Year’s bowl games.
But listening to Petersen after last year’s 28-23 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, you would never have known it.
That day, the Huskies had fallen behind 28-3 entering the fourth quarter, and, while they deserved credit for fighting back and making it a game, there was no moral victory to celebrate in Petersen’s eyes — particularly regarding the unit that didn’t score a touchdown through three quarters.
“We need to look at our offense really closely, no question,” he said.
“We will get that fixed. We’ll have a plan. We will. We’ll study the hell out of the tape. And, you know, pare things down so we’re more precise at what we’re doing. It all comes down to execution.”
The frustration of losing four straight marquee national games — the 2016 CFP semifinal to Alabama, 24-7; the 2017 Fiesta Bowl to Penn State, 35-28; the 2018 season-opener to Auburn in Atlanta, 21-16; and the Rose Bowl to the Buckeyes — was palpable from the usually subdued Petersen.
His challenge during this offseason and in fall camp has been to get the Huskies back playing the explosive offensive brand of football that led them to the CFP, with then-sophomore Jake Browning throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns. For some reason — possibly the departure of dynamic wide receivers John Ross after 2016 and Dante Pettis after 2017 — Browning’s production regressed during his last two seasons. He didn’t reach 20 touchdowns in either season as the Huskies rode the dependable legs of Myles Gaskin.
Browning has graduated, and the heir apparent is Jacob Eason, the former five-star, pro-style quarterback who sat last season after transferring from Georgia. Eason was surprisingly beaten out by Jake Fromm in Athens and should have a chip on his shoulder to go along with a big arm.
Can Petersen unlock his potential?
Washington again does not have a proven game breaker on the outside, but one can assume that Petersen spent the last seven months trying to find one. The Huskies do have another ready-made star running back in Salvon Ahmed, which should open some throwing lanes for Eason.
Washington will be aided by a favorable schedule. Its toughest nonconference game is at BYU, and it hosts USC, Oregon, Utah and Washington State at Husky Stadium. Given Petersen’s consistency, Washington has a good chance to repeat as Pac-12 champion. But it’s clear he is fed up with that ceiling.