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Matt Calkins: Washington still looks for signature win under head coach Chris Petersen

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 2, 2019, 6:22 p.m.

Despite two Pac-12 titles in three years, the Washington Huskies are still seeking an elusive signature win under coach Chris Petersen. (Rick Bowmer / AP)
Despite two Pac-12 titles in three years, the Washington Huskies are still seeking an elusive signature win under coach Chris Petersen. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

PASADENA, Calif. – It’s tempting to reward them for their resilience when a comeback seemed impossible. Scoring 20 unanswered points against Ohio State is an achievement in itself.

But Washington is past the point of earning praise when a game ends in defeat. The takeaway from Tuesday is that the Chris Petersen-coached Huskies still lack a signature win.

Maybe that seems harsh when we’re talking about a team that has won two Pac-12 titles in three years. Perhaps that seems unfair considering the Huskies just played in their first Rose Bowl since 2001.

But that 28-23 loss to the Buckeyes did more than disappoint UW’s players and fans. It perpetuated what’s become an increasingly frustrating narrative.

Obviously, you guys have achieved a lot over the past few years, but what’s the significance of still not having that major bowl win? Petersen was asked after the game.

“Well, I think it means we’re close to being where we want to be, but we’re not there,” he said. “I just think it’s frustrating for us, when you feel like you didn’t put your best foot forward.”

Senior quarterback Jake Browning was then asked for his thoughts.

“I don’t really have anything to say other than what Coach Pete did.”

Senior running back Myles Gaskin’s followed with an even more succinct response: “Yup.”

Those aren’t the answers players give when they feel they were merely denied the maraschino cherry. Those are the answers players give when their college careers lack a certain satisfaction.

The Huskies’ return to prominence has reinvigorated a fan base that waded through a 0-12 season since their last trip to the Rose Bowl. But after a loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff in 2016, a loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl last season and Tuesday’s loss to Ohio State, that defining victory has yet to come.

Perhaps the most discouraging part about that defeat to the Buckeyes is how slowly Washington started. Through the first three quarters of the Granddaddy of Them All, the Huskies all looked like granddaddies.

They went three and out on their first two drives and punted on six of their first seven. Their most pitiful effort came at the end of the first half, when they had a first down with 1 minute, 16 seconds left, punted with 1:00 left, then let Ohio State take a 21-3 lead via a five-play, 57-yard touchdown drive.

It would be one thing if the Buckeyes boasted a vaunted defense, but they don’t. They allowed 49 points to Purdue and 51 points to Maryland earlier in the year, yet they had the Huskies looking like a scout team.

One could argue this reflected the talent disparity between the Pac-12 and Big Ten, and there may be something to that. More than anything, though, this was about one team seeming prepared and another one not.

“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 on these kids.”

Maybe. But there were also errant passes and dropped balls. There were some silly penalties as well. It didn’t help that safety Taylor Rapp – arguably UW’s most valuable defensive player – was out with a hip pointer, but that wasn’t enough to explain why the Huskies began the fourth quarter down 28-3.

Of course, the Huskies cut the deficit to 18 early in the fourth quarter. And they went on to force three three-and-outs and a turnover on downs while scoring two more touchdowns. Had they recovered the onside kick with 42 seconds left, this column may be detailing the greatest comeback in Rose Bowl history.

Instead, it’s describing another year-end letdown.

A look at the stat sheet tells you that Washington could have won this game. It outgained Ohio State by 80 yards, had five more first downs and controlled the ball for 10 more minutes. But a look at the film will tell you that Washington was outclassed until only a miracle could salvage a win.

So how does Petersen fix this?

“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,” he said, referring specifically to the offense. “It all comes down to execution.”

Obviously, Petersen has won big games before. Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma was one of the most iconic games in college football history.

At Washington, though, the people are still waiting.

We’ll see when that wait ends.

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