This Arizona game was a big win for Washington. This was the first game in a while where I've really felt like we've been on the right side of winners win and losers lose. It was an ugly victory where the team looked vulnerable in nearly every aspect of the game at one point or another. Despite seemingly being capable of overmatching Arizona at every position this game still came down to the wire and in many ways Arizona looked the more dominant team. That is what happens when you play nobody in the preseason and spend three weeks preparing for the opponent following your first actual foe. Petersen said following the game, "We’ve planned for about three weeks for this short week.” (Source: http://www.espn.com/blog/pac12/post/_/id/104110/stanford-will-reveal-if-washington-is-finally-good-enough). That would certainly resonate with Fulmer's Gameday comments that Washington is full of themselves. This team came in unfocused, unprepared, and nearly let Arizona run away with it. Arizona was likely preparing for this game the way we've ostensibly been preparing for Stanford – after all Arizona has beaten a top 10 team at home each of the last three seasons. That alone should have been reason to take this game seriously.
Prior to the Arizona game I wrote about four things to watch for in this game that would indicate where we stand. My first point was I wanted to see domination. If we had come in and cleaned house with Arizona that would show we are a true championship contender. Obviously that didn't happen. My part b to that was if we didn't dominate (but instead saw a score like <b>35-28</b>) I wanted to see Browning really step up and take on leadership and take the trial by fire head on. That didn't really happen either. I'll come back to that though.
What I did see though was the team stick with it as a whole and overcome a major mental hurdle. This team has been mentally weak for a long time and hadn't won in Arizona since 2006. It has been stated by many that it is hard to win on the road in the Pac-12 but that simply isn't true – it's just hard for Washington. Using data from http://www.seldomusedreserve.com/?page_id=8805 I looked at road winning percentages for intra-conference games since 2011 (start of the Pac-12). The Pac-12 is an easy conference to win on the road in, with the away team winning 31.7% of the time. By comparison the average for all other conferences combined (intra-conference games only) is 24.3% road winning percentage. Excluding the Arizona game, Washington however comes in at 23.7% on the road. - below the national average and well below the Pac-12 average We have been mentally weak losers and despite having a record (7-6) that suggests we were an average team, we performed way below average on the road, shinking at the first sign of adversity. This game may be a turning point, hopefully. Browning commented this is the sort of game we would have lost last year but the team held on for the win this time. I of course remember our turning points against USC in 2009 and Stanford in 2012 which instead of being hallmark victories were just flukes. Time will tell whether this was an anomalous victory or our first glimpse into the team mentally toughening up. It is a promising sign however. Another horrid wilting and loss would have shown the season is almost certainly over and Petersen is almost certainly the wrong coach. Instead we play on.
Another worrying thing for Stanford was our inability to keep contain on Arizona. Sure, we did much worse than I anticipated up the middle too however Arizona was gashing us left and right with their 32nd string running back and backup quarterback. Christian McCaffrey is liable to feast on us (or at least Psalm Wooching) all day unless something changes. Sure, we won't have to worry about a mobile quarterback like Arizona's Dawkins so maybe we will be able to support Psalm more with the rest of our linebacking corps, but it is a problem that doesn't seem to be going away. After the first quarter the defense really toughened up and looked more like what I expect to see, barring some major gaffes that kept Arizona in the game, but our OLB play is a huge chink in our armor.
On the bright side the offensive line did look better. My third point for the Arizona game was we needed better line play and we got it. They weren't grading the road (and Arizona was a favorable matchup with their undersized DL) but they weren't completely abysmal. They headed in the right direction this past week so let's hope that trend continues for Stanford.
My last point for the Arizona game was coaching. While we didn't lose the game due to clock management like in 2014, there is still a major fundamental problem here: the Offbalance Offense. The one theme that this offense has is that it is trying to confuse the other team – no identity, lots of "trick"plays, pre-snap movement before nearly every play, and calling the unexpected. Sure, you may expect Washington to run a dive to pick up one yard, but won't a delayed counter confuse you? Aparently not if you're Arizona, or anyone else in the country. I get taking advantage of mismatches and holes in the defense can be advantageous, but this clearly isn't working. Empirically the misdirection does not create enough opportunities for the drives it kills. This team can only score on explosive plays because the offense can not create any sustained drives. This is the major sticking point that will continue to hold this team back. This is the biggest reason I think we will lose against Stanford. I don't see our offense spending much time on the field Friday.
Going back to Jake Browning - is he Hugh Millen? A cerebral quarterback who can audible out of bad situations, make the throws he has to, and just not screw things up too badly? Sure, we want a star quarterback who can put the team on this shoulders and make something out of nothing – but Browning may never be that and I don't think we need that. I was too young to follow football when Millen was the quarterback so I can't make a fair comparsion but based on conversations I've had with a few people Browning is probably better than Millen. Nonetheless the point remains that our 1984 national championship team* was headlined by the Purple Reign defense, not the quarterback. We have our Death Row Defense, where if they prove that Arizona was an aberrant showing and are dominant moving forward, could carry the team. Coleman had a break out performance which won the game, which if continued can be the focal point of an offense. If Gaskin returns to form (not the point of this article but I think he will by end of the season which is also an offensive centerpiece) and we intelligently use our WRs and TEs as weapons we could have a loaded offense. You look at championship Alabama teams and you see a team like ours – a dynamic defense, strong running backs, great skill players and a quarterback who can do his job. Our offensive line may not be that caliber yet but the big things I see separating us from the likes of Alabama is our team's mentality and the lack of offensive play calling fundamentals. We may have taken a major stride forward in terms of mentality and if this team can continue to become winners in their core then they will live up to the hype. They have the capability to be the team people have billed them as – but they have to find it in themselves to prove it. They aren't Purple Reign or Bama yet.
Based on what I wanted to see heading into the Arizona game we don't look good for beating Stanford. We certainly could, I didn't see what I wanted to against Arizona but I think the team will clean up a lot over the next couple of days and come out amped to play a top team. Stanford has the consistency we lack though and they will be looking forward to this game as well. Based on the tough victory at Arizona though I do think the team may have cleared a major hurdle and the overall season is looking like we may achieve minimum required objectives of 10 wins. The season is not over and Petersen may not have to be sacrificed atop Mount Rainier. Unfortunately for him 10 wins is not an eternal metric and there will have to be changes to ascend from conference contender to national contender. In the meantime things look to be heading in the right direction and we'll learn more about this team against Stanford on Friday.