Right now we're both future national champions and hopelessly doomed to failure but by the end of year 3 we'll know which.
By Mad Son
As our fans descend into a hopeless spiral of death and despair leading up to tonight’s/tomorrow morning’s Stanford plungering, I won't bore you with an in-depth quantum mechanics analogy. I do think though it is a good time to point out that even though we’ve lost some close games that we would have like to have won, and like to think a different coach would have won them, it’s too early to call for Petersen’s head. The Oregon game is not a moral victory, and hell it may barely be progress since Oregon may be down as much as we’re up, but it is progress. We’ve known since the Willingham era that is takes three years to evaluate a coach. To recruit the right players who have talent and potential as opposed to stars, to replace the culture and get guys to play hard the whole game, to get Ivan’s hands off of the players and make progress in the weight room, it does take some time. There was a hope and expectation that Petersen could do it more quickly because he has a track record of success. Does that make sense? Do you think that it takes three years if you hire a hopeless loser but less if you hire someone competent? No. It takes up to three years for a winner and forever if you’re a loser. Maybe Petersen will get it done and maybe he won’t but we don’t know yet.
Comparison to other BSU coaches who won at a lower level but not at their next gig is lazy analysis – success at lower level is obviously not a guarantee of future success. There are some coaches from lower levels, Randy Edsall was obvious example from day 1 at Maryland, where you can see the coach doesn’t get it and will be a failure. You look back at Sarkisian (not a lower level coach but an example of not understanding what it takes to win at a high level) and from the first moment of FREE PUB you can see there is a fundamental disconnect. Petersen does get it; that isn’t enough to win but the day 1 fundamental flaws that telegraph a bad hire aren’t here. It is going to come down to seeing what we get on the field to judge Petersen.
One of the easy ways to criticize a coach is clock management. It is an easily understandable thing for fans to say hold onto your timeouts until the end. Without an understanding of how the players are reacting on the sidelines, without a knowledge of what the coach is seeing in how players are lined up on the field it is not hard to lament early timeouts. This is a red herring though. There are good coaches who are notorious for bad clock management. I know some people here would love to see a proven winner like Les Miles as our head coach but he would drive these same people crazy with his clock management. Clock management is like one big play, one dropped ball, one penalty where it is a whole bunch of woulda, shoulda, coulda. To be in a position where one timeout makes the difference means there were dozens of other plays throughout the game that could have made the difference. This is probably just the most memorable one. A much more legitimate gripe is calling for a punt on 4th and 1 on the opponent’s 39 when you’re down by 6 in the first quarter. Even if Wooching hadn’t screwed up the ensuing three and out that doesn’t change the nature of the bad play call. Maybe that was a pass-punt option based on how the defense lined up? I don’t know what was going through Petersen’s head in some greater strategy but this is an example of actual questionable coaching.
Speaking of play calling I’m back to where I was last year with Smith where some things seem like obvious stupid mistakes (e.g. not establishing/sticking with the run) but there is an issue here – having young players who don’t belong on the field limits what you can call. I think Smith has opened up the playbook a bit with more deep balls, Gaskin has been getting increased playing time, and at the end of the day we’re seeing some of the limitations he is working with. This is the first time age is a legitimate excuse in as long as I can remember:
Our QB depth chart is lead by a True Freshman and Red Shirt Freshman (who would have thought we’d see Carta-Samuels playing instead of the Wild Swede for the last drive against Oregon?). On the offensive line we have three underclassmen starters including a True Freshman and in our OL two deeps we add three redshirt freshmen. Our best RB is Myles Gaskin who is good and is the future but he is small. Give Gaskin and our OL some time in the weight room and they should be formidable. OL and QB are the two positions on offense where you want to be playing upperclassmen the most but we just don’t have those players right now. Petersen is getting his players in and if we’re still young in a year or two then being young is an excuse and not a reason. For now there is a difference.
For all of our offensive woes our defensive improvement has been tremendous. It is completely anomalous that our defense is good despite 5 underclassmen starters. Mercifully Sarkisian managed to recruit some DL depth and with two seniors and a junior on our starting DL our younger players have stepped up enough to be a solid unit. You can really see our defensive depth and overall improvement. This is obvious in our improved special teams play and by the fact that our defense has improved after losing Shelton, Thompson, and Kikaha (Peters doesn’t count since we kicked him out early in the season). The uptick in toughness, the punishing hits, playing all game long, these are the strides we demand but being a top defense in year two maybe wasn’t expected. The offense must catch up now but the defense has gotten it done and is a major accomplishment for the coaching staff.
The big weak link separating victory and defeat is Jake Browning. Browning does some good things but is still a freshman; he hasn’t caught up to speed of game and he makes bad throws into bad places. There are places he throws the ball that the defense couldn’t get to in high school but are dangerous at the college level. He does have a level of maturity that are beyond what you typically see from a freshman – he keeps his eyes down field, he throws the ball away when pressured, he doesn’t look flustered. His big short coming though is a critical part of being QB – he doesn’t make the throws. I think he has regressed in terms of touch since earlier in the season. Maybe the pressure the OL lets through is getting to him (although I think I see the OL improving) and maybe the competition is just harder now and he looked relatively better before. Regardless he doesn’t always get his short passes where he needs to and we know his deep balls are entirely erratic. His arm strength is lacking but I think he can run a west coast offense at a high level as long as he can get his throws in order. He does have some random bad passes that sometimes I think are on the receiver running the wrong route but throwing behind the receiver is a problem he needs to get under control even for his short passes. This is why we lose. I don’t think he is someone who necessarily chokes under pressure – I think his entire game is just limited right now and he can’t make the throws he needs to in good times or bad.
This brings us back to a clock management issue. We can’t have it both ways – when we scored our final points against Oregon in a torturously long drive that had me pulling my hair out everyone was wondering why we were wasting so much time and the coaches weren’t doing something. Do you think Browning can run a hurry up offense right now? We had to stick to what we can do – runs and short passes. If we had gone to a more vertical passing game without a run threat we were going to go 3 and out. Our only hope of scoring twice was to take as much time as Browning needed to just score once. While our coaching staff is not perfect they are sort of handcuffed by our true freshman quarterback. Why we don’t have Miles or Williams on the roster anymore I don’t know. Did the players leave for fear of the bench? Were they run off by the coaches because they were cultural losers? Was it a mistake? I don’t know but we have what we have now and the rest is just speculation.
It is easy to be negative, and easy to predict a coach won’t succeed since most don’t. Predicting a coach will be a failure on day one is a safe call. Giving up hope and expecting to lose at first lack of success is the weak minded hallmark of a Sarkisian player though. We’re seeing a mixed bag of greatness, red herrings, and abject failure. It all needs to come together soon because Petersen has 1.5 more years to prove that Washington will be a winner under him. It is still too early to tell on Petersen though and as we all know, some of us would have fired Don James twice before 1991.