SEATTLE — During fall camp, University of Washington athletics produced a video titled, “Chris Petersen: A Day in the Life.” The roughly 13-minute masterclass in college football recruiting and viral marketing featured Petersen — UW’s sixth-year head coach — cutting across a sun-splashed Lake Washington to Husky Stadium on his boat, with Mount Rainier looming as large as the coming season in the distance. It included facilities tours, coaches meetings, recruiting calls and a practice — all immaculately edited to remove schematic/strategic spoilers.
And, before a film session with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan at 8:45 a.m., Petersen directly addressed the camera and said the following words:
“Heading into a meeting with coach Hamdan. Got to get dialed up a little bit on the pass game. Got to run to win, throw to score.”
This was a throwaway line, but it’s also a common theme. Throughout his nearly six full seasons at Washington, Petersen has repeated some version of “Throw to score, run to win,” or “run to win, throw to score” in countless UW news conferences. The basic premise is that an efficient passing game can produce yards, touchdowns and highlights galore. But a physical, consistent running attack wins football games.
Just not in Friday’s 31-13 Apple Cup win over Washington State.
In the first half on Friday, the Huskies (7-5, 4-5) ran 15 times for 28 yards and 1.9 yards per carry. Redshirt-junior quarterback Jacob Eason, meanwhile, completed 9 of 14 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. They attempted to pass on four of their first five plays, including a 57-yard strike from Eason to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Terrell Bynum.
Hamdan said after the game that “coming off of last week, we just really wanted to try to open some things up with the pass first and then come with the run game. So we were fortunate to create the (pass) plays early on.”
That might have come as somewhat of a surprise, considering that A.) Washington State (6-6, 3-6) ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (170 yards allowed per game) and rushing touchdowns allowed (23) and dead last in opponent yards per carry (4.9), and B.) Eason completed just 56.1% of his passes while throwing for an average of 190.5 yards with one total touchdown and three interceptions in his last two games, against poor Pac-12 pass defenses in Oregon State and Colorado.
So, with all that considered: throw to score … and win?
Throw to score and win.
“We started taking what they were giving us,” said UW senior center Nick Harris. “They knew that we were going to roll them up front. Their D-tackles are 250 (pounds), so they’ve got to move (and twist). They’ve got to bring down safeties. They’ve got to play with a packed box. That’s what they did, and that’s when we started throwing bombs over their head, and that’s when we started scoring.”
Added Petersen after the win: “It’s no secret that everybody’s going to play with 11 guys 8 yards (or less) from the ball and pack it in there, and you still got to try to run it a little bit. If they were going to do that, then we were going to have to hit some plays downfield. So that happened today.
“That’s the only way to operate. If you’re going to run that style, you’re going to have to hit some big plays downfield. That’s been a little bit of our problem in the past.”
And it’ll likely be a problem in the future. Unfortunately, a seventh consecutive Apple Cup win over Washington State doesn’t suddenly solve all of UW’s passing problems. It’s worth remembering that the Cougars currently rank 125th out of 130 teams nationally in opponent yards per pass attempt (8.9), 121st in passing defense (286.8 yards per game) and 117th in opponent pass-efficiency rating (153.62). Their defense is the football equivalent of a doctored mirror that makes you look like a supermodel in the department store, and considerably worse once you step outside.
It’s true, Petersen said that Eason “took a step forward” on Friday. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 244 yards with a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown and zero turnovers. But he still missed passes that could have gone for touchdowns, including a second-quarter overthrow of tight end Hunter Bryant that would have been an untouched 55-yard score. And Eason’s wide receivers are still tremendously limited; they struggle to create consistent separation, even against middling Pac-12 defenses.
In the offseason, Petersen and Co. will still need to consider significant philosophical adjustments on offense. And, in the long run, they’ll still need to run to win.
But for one fall Friday, at least, they passed the test with flying colors.