The hiring was lauded by all. Washington, after all, did what many thought wasn’t possible — lure Chris Petersen away from Boise State.
Petersen was a top candidate for previous head coaching jobs across the college football landscape from Stanford to USC to UCLA through the years. Every time the coach said he wasn’t interested. Before talks ever got serious, Petersen politely declined any further overtures and withdrew his name.
But the school on the shores of Lake Washington presented the right fit to Petersen, 92-12 in eight seasons with the Broncos. Location, conference, program amenities, tradition, the inherited roster — all of it desirable, appealed to a coach looking for a new challenge. He’s certainly received that in his first year at the helm of the Huskies.
After falling to the 18th-ranked UCLA Bruins 44-30 on Saturday, the Huskies fell to 6-4 overall, 2-4 in Pac-12 conference play and 0-4 against ranked opponents. It’s been a rough year for a squad that returned eight starters on defense, their entire starting offensive line and a wealth of talent in the play-making positions of quarterback, receiver and running back even with the departure of program leaders Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins.
Petersen inherited three four-star quarterbacks (Cyler Miles, Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams), a Parade National High School Player of the Year in wide receiver Kasen Williams in addition to four-star talents Jaydon Mickens, Darrell Daniels, Demore’ea Stringfellow, John Ross and Deontae Cooper. Under former head coach Steve Sarkisian, much of that talent helped lead the Huskies offense to program records as well as top conference marks in 2013. More than easy transition, many expected thought Petersen was inheriting a Pac-12 North division contender, potentially a 10-win team and a program on the brink of being a national powerhouse.
Instead, a crowd of maybe 50,000 at the 72,000 capacity Husky Stadium had all but entirely dissipated by halftime of Saturday’s loss to UCLA. That left Petersen searching for answers at his weekly Monday press conference. When a media member asked him if his first year has gone to expectations, Petersen mustered, “It’s been hard.” Sadly, the season has been more than hard for a program that was on the upswing, it’s been a mitigated disaster.
Before criticizing Petersen’s coaching or handling of the program, most fans and analysts will point to the lack of a true No. 1, Pac-12 worthy, starting quarterback. In his first year as starter, the redshirt sophomore Miles has been well below average. In eight starts, Miles has surpassed 200 yards passing in two games, and his dual-threat ability hasn’t been as dynamic as expected, rushing for more than 50 yards in just two games.
But Miles showed ability in limited action in 2013. In the second half against UCLA after Price left with an injured shoulder, Miles passed for 149 yards and two touchdowns. The following week, Miles received the first start of his career and was solid, finishing 15 for 24 for 162 yards and a touchdown in a 69-27 blowout victory over Oregon State. He entered the offseason as the prohibitive favorite to land the starting quarterback role. A new coaching staff and a February incident put Miles behind the eight ball entering August training camp. That certainly didn’t help and nor did the loss of Sankey who was drafted in the second round of the May NFL Draft.
Regardless of the reasons, Miles has not played well, that’s a given. And I think most people thought regardless of the new offense, regardless of Miles’ inexperience, there was enough talent on both sides of the ball to be a contending team in the Pac-12. A team that finished the season with at least nine wins, more likely 10 in a potential 14-game season and mid-teen ranking in the AP poll, appeared likely. Washington will be fortunate to finish with eight wins given the way the team is currently performing.
For a coach that has the pedigree Petersen has, the state the program was in that he inherited, this season has been more than disappointing. You can peruse the Huskies roster and find no more than a handful of players that played meaningful snaps for the team in ’13, now playing meaningful snaps in ’14, that show significant progress over 11 months of football.
We’re not talking about the redshirt freshman like Keishawn Bierria or Joe Mathis or Elijah Qualls, who really did not see any action in ’13 and are making a name for themselves now in ’14. Given the aforementioned prerequisite, I can point to a couple offensive lineman (Colin Tanigawa and James Atoe), Andrew Hudson who wasn’t given a chance in ’13 by previous regime, and, of course, Shaq Thompson, as the only players who have progressed significantly in 11 months. That is shocking to me. We’re talking about five guys that have improved from one year to the next under what is thought to be a tremendous coach.
Meanwhile, you can pinpoint a dozen instances in which the opposite has happened. Almost every offensive weapon is performing worse than their level of ’13 with Kasen Williams first and foremost among them, injury or not. Jaydon Mickens, John Ross, Darrell Daniels, Josh Perkins and Dwayne Washington have regressed in both playing time and impact. On the offensive line, Micah Hatchie, Ben Riva, Mike Criste and Dexter Charles have all regressed, Riva isn’t even being played by the new coaching staff despite having practiced fully for about the last month after suffering an injury late in camp to begin the year. On defense, Evan Hudson and Cory Littleton stand out as clear examples. Other guys — Travis Feeney, Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha, John Timu, Marcus Peters (when he was here), Miles and Cooper among them — who are riding a flat line, or showing the natural progression one expects from a player of their talent, Kikaha in particular. Kikaha’s season is a credit to his ability more than it is to coach Petersen teaching him in a particular way or putting him in a better position to succeed.
On top of that, the program has lost young talents in Stringfellow and Marcus Farria because of his leadership style. Peters, not expected to be with the program past ’14, is the most recent departure which likely affects the win/loss finish of the final month.
On a bottom-line level, the program is in worse shape than it was at the same time a year ago with largely the same roster; a roster that features (or featured in January) potentially six first-round draft picks (Shelton, Thompson, Peters, Feeney, Stringfellow and Kikaha). It certainly has not been nearly as productive a season as Petersen likely expected, nor what the loyal fan base expected. It’s just his first year, but it’s one that has been an abject failure for Petersen and his staff.
What happens in year two, could very well be the determining factor in his Washington tenure.