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Chris Petersen brought Pac-12 glory to Washington a year early. What’s in store for an encore?

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How quickly can the Huskies’ secondary rebuild? The answer might determine a CFP spot.

NCAA Football: Washington Spring Game Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

On January 1, 2001, Rick Neuheisel's Washington Huskies put a cruel end to Purdue's Cinderella story. The Boilermakers were playing in their first Rose Bowl in 35 years, while the Huskies were in their fourth in 11.

The game was tied at 17-17 midway through the third quarter, but a 17-0 UW run, highlighted by a touchdown pass by Marques Tuiasosopo and a touchdown run by Willie Hurst, put the game away. The 34-24 win capped an 11-1 campaign and No. 3 final ranking. Washington had handed an awesome Miami its only blemish early in the season, and the Huskies' only loss was by a touchdown in Eugene against 10-win Oregon.

The 2000 season ended what felt at the time like a drought. UW hadn't finished in the Top 10 since 1991, Don James' penultimate season in charge. James had engineered six top-10 finishes and six Rose Bowl bids and had split the 1991 national title with Miami.

The Huskies dealt with sanctions stemming from improper benefits and were banned from the postseason for two years, but despite this, expectations were high enough that Jim Lambright's seven wins per year didn't cut it. He was dismissed following the 1998 season, and Neuheisel came aboard. Two years into his tenure, it again appeared that the sky was the limit in Seattle. Instead, we were witnessing a dead cat bounce.

Not so. Neuheisel was dismissed after the 2002 season because of what are in hindsight silly NCAA rules violations related to gambling. Replacement Keith Gilbertson went 7-16 in two years. Tyrone Willingham went 11-37 in four years and finished with an 0-12 campaign. Steve Sarkisian earned plaudits for simply dragging UW back to the seven-win level.

Those plaudits mostly ended when Sark couldn’t bring UW too far beyond the seven-win mark, and when Sarkisian left for USC, the school made the hire it was hoping Neuheisel would become.

It took Chris Petersen a year to get the depth chart pieces arranged like he wanted them, and it took another year to get those pieces requisite experience. And after 15 wins in two years, Petersen’s Huskies won 12 in his third.

Less than a decade after going 0-12, and just half a decade after growing quite tired of being 7-6, Washington is again your defending conference champion. In a year that saw 1990s stalwarts like Colorado surging back into national consciousness, Washington surged the furthest. That you could see it coming didn’t make it any less impressive. The Huskies had shown all the signs of a likely breakout in 2015, and then they broke out.

Petersen was one of college football’s surest things even a year into his UW stint, but in my 2015 Husky preview, you could see doubt creeping in, though it was mixed with long-term optimism.

It bears mentioning that it's been three years since Petersen was at the helm of a great team, and this season probably won't end that streak.

Long-term, it's still not hard to see this working out. Petersen's recruiting has been an entertaining mix of four-star locals and "Who's this guy?" According to Rivals, he signed five of the state's top 10 prospects for 2015 and landed the top player in Wyoming and the second-best from Idaho. He is mixing blue-chippers with rugged Boise types, and that could produce exciting results.

Plus, this retooling year could pay off. Washington will be starting either a freshman or a junior QB in 2015, someone who could lead the Huskies through at least 2016. The top returning running back is a sophomore. With John Ross injured, a few more freshmen and sophomores will get time in the corps, and then Ross will return for 2016-17. Quite a few freshmen or redshirt freshmen could end up in the rotation on the defensive line. And the top two returnees in the secondary are sophomores.

Washington might not be very good, but whatever level they produce, they will probably exceed it greatly in 2016, then perhaps in 2017.

That’s right, I thought UW might improve in 2016, then improve again this fall. Yikes.

Petersen alleviated any apparently unjust doubt by producing a top-15 caliber team in 2015, one that was about two touchdowns from 10 wins. And then he came through on all the promise.

So what’s the encore? When a team rises this quickly, we often assume the rise is based on experienced players who then leave; that, in turn, causes a bit of regression. Instead, the Huskies are still led by juniors in the offensive backfield and boast loads of experience in basically every unit but the secondary. And in that secondary reside some of the most promising youngsters on the team.

Petersen didn’t ride one batch of recruits to elite play at Boise State — he did it over a number of years, and now he has more prized recruits and more resources at his disposal. He’s a program builder, and heading into his fourth year in Seattle, he’s built a program that has grown and appears to still be growing.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington
David Ajamu
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 Washington statistical profile.

One of the most impressive traits of Petersen’s peak-era Boise State teams was the consistency. They didn’t take games off. They continuously drubbed bad teams and held something in reserve for the best opponents on the schedule.

With a lineup loaded with sophomores, Petersen’s Huskies pulled off a similar feat. According to the single-game percentile ratings, they played at a 90th-percentile level or higher 10 times in 2016 and played below the 70th percentile just twice in the regular season — in a road dud against Arizona (an overtime win) and in the loss to USC. You expect that consistency from a more experienced team ... and now Washington is more experienced.

There’s basically just one more hurdle for UW to clear. While the Huskies looked great against plenty of good teams — they did beat S&P+ No. 18 Colorado and No. 23 Stanford by a combined 85-16, after all — the offense pulled a total disappearing act against top-10 level competition (i.e. USC and Alabama). The defense was fine in those games, allowing 25 points per game and 5.5 yards per play; the offense, however: 10 points per game, 3.6 yards per play.

But if your worst flaw is “can’t move the ball on Alabama,” you’re still in pretty good shape against everybody else.


Offense

Washington offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Washington’s No. 15 ranking in Off. S&P+ feels just about perfect — if you ranked in the top 15, you could maybe slow the Huskies down. If you didn’t, you couldn’t.

  • UW vs. S&P+ top 15: Avg. offensive percentile performance: 30% (~top 90) | Avg. yards per play: 3.6 | Avg. points per game: 10.0
  • UW vs. everyone else: Avg. offensive percentile performance: x | Avg. yards per play: 7.4 | Avg. points per game: 47.1

A slight difference there. But whether or not the Huskies had the weapons to puncture the defenses of Alabama or USC, their absurd balance made them unstoppable against everybody else. They were 10th in Rushing S&P+ and sixth in Passing S&P+, and they had both the most efficient offense in the conference by far, but also the third most explosive.

Washington offensive efficiency & explosiveness

To make matters worse for opponents, their tendencies were minimal. They ran the ball just 54 percent of the time on standard downs, six percent lower than the national average, often stealing easy yards via the pass. Meanwhile, they ran 35 percent of the time on passing downs, more than the national average. And if you were able to stop one aspect of their attack (like Colorado shutting down the pass), they could adapt and just lean on other weapons (Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman vs. CU: 47 carries, 260 yards).

They were patient in creating third-and-manageable situations — they were first in the country in standard downs success rate — and once in those third-and-manageables, they had Jake Browning to move the chains.

Here’s what Washington’s junior quarterback has thus far done in his career:

  • He’s thrown for 6,385 yards and 59 touchdowns.
  • He’s completed 63 percent of his passes.
  • In 759 attempts, he’s thrown just 19 interceptions.

He’s also now won 15 of his last 17 starts. And he’s got most of last year’s weapons back.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Jake Browning
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Now, “most” can be misleading. There’s one pretty key departure. Washington’s offense went stratospheric last year when speedy John Ross came back from injury. He gained 1,252 combined rushing and receiving yards and scored 18 offensive touchdowns. His speed briefly even cracked open the USC defense. That he’s gone hurts.

But he’s almost the only guy gone. Departed tight end Darrell Daniels did catch 17 passes, and third-string running back Jomon Dotson switched to cornerback, but that’s it. Gaskin and Coleman are back after combining for 2,228 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. (Gaskin also caught 19 passes, fifth on the team.) Dante Pettis, a breakout star in 2015 and a dynamic return man, will take over as No. 1 receiver after averaging 11.3 yards per target. New No. 2 Chico McClatcher averaged 12 per target out of the slot.

The line should hold up, too. All-conference guard Jake Eldrenkamp is gone, but two other all-conference guys — left tackle Trey Adams and center Coleman Shelton — are back. In all, seven returnees have combined for 76 career starts and did a nice job of helping Gaskin and Coleman to avoid negative gains. (The next step: protecting Browning, though Browning brought a few of his 25 sacks against himself by holding onto the ball too long.)

In two years, offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith’s offense has risen from 81st to 37th to 15th in Off. S&P+. Losing Ross hurts, but the level of experience is growing astronomical, and that makes the odds of further improvement pretty decent, especially considering the addition of receivers coach and co-coordinator Matt Lubick to the mix. Lubick was set to become co-coordinator at Baylor until the draw of working with Petersen, Smith, Browning, and company drew him west.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Myles Gaskin
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State
Dante Pettis
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Washington defensive radar

Washington’s offense and defense were almost strangely aligned with each other. Rushing S&P+: 10th on offense, 10th on defense. Passing S&P+: sixth on offense, fifth on defense. Points per scoring opportunity: seventh on offense, ninth on defense.

The defense brought it a bit more in big games, though. Aside from a strange glitch against Arizona (475 yards, 6.4 per play), the Huskies were dramatically consistent, allowing more than 5 yards per play to only Alabama, USC, and, thanks to a single play (a 75-yard run), Oregon State.

UW had the most efficient defense in the conference and was basically tied for tops in big-play prevention, too.

Washington defensive efficiency & explosiveness

This was all just par for the course for Pete Kwiatkowski, of course. In seven seasons as Petersen’s defensive coordinator (four at BSU, four at UW), he has now produced a Def. S&P+ ranking of 11th or better five times — second in 2010, ninth in 2011, 11th in 2012, eighth in 2015, and eighth in 2016.

Kwiatkowski’s underrated prowess will be tested in 2017. His front seven should be as stout as ever, returning junior tackles Vita Vea and Greg Gaines and six of last year’s top seven linebackers. But turnover in the secondary is strongly correlated to defensive regression, and UW has to deal with the loss of both all-world safety Budda Baker and its top three cornerbacks. Baker, Kevin King, Sidney Jones, and Darren Gardenhire combined for 17.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions, 27 breakups, and four forced fumbles for a defense that was otherwise only decent in the havoc department. That’s a huge loss.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Taylor Rapp (21)
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The cupboard isn’t bare, at least. Safeties JoJo McIntosh and Ezekiel Turner and sophomore nickel Taylor Rapp combined for 18 havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, forced fumbles) of their own, and four-star sophomore corner Austin Joyner got his feet wet last year (as did junior Jordan Miller).

Throw in a pair of four-star redshirt freshmen (corner Byron Murphy, safety Isaiah Gilchrist) and three four-star true freshmen, and you’ve got all the raw athleticism and play-making you need. But it will still probably take a while for the wrinkles to get ironed out, and even high-upside youngsters look like youngsters quite a bit.

Opponents will probably be able to pass on Washington quite a bit better than they could last year, but at least the Huskies will be able to make them one-dimensional. The line does lose Elijah Qualls and Damion Turpin, but Vea, Gaines, and junior end Jaylen Johnson are dynamite. Or to put that another way, a line of Vea, Gaines, and me would still be pretty effective. The only concern up front is with depth — outside of the three players listed, every other lineman on the roster combined for two solo tackles and two assists last year.

UW does have to replace two awesome pass-rushing linebackers in Psalm Wooching and Joe Mathis, and that’s not nothing — this was an average pass rush even with their 11 sacks. But in terms of run support, the combination of Keishawn Bierria, Azeem Victor, Ben Burr-Kirven, Connor O’Brien, DJ Beavers, Tevis Bartlett, and Benning Potoa’e has it in droves. And the loss of Wooching and Mathis will probably mean bigger numbers for Bartlett and Potoa’e.

Put it this way: a linebacking corps of Washington’s second stringers would probably rank in the top half of the Pac-12. I love this unit, especially with Vea and Gaines occupying blockers.

NCAA Football: Idaho at Washington
Vita Vea (50)
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

UW special teams still has room for improvement. Despite the presence of Ross in kick returns and Pettis in punt returns, UW still only ranked 50th in Special Teams S&P+, and that was with place-kicker Cameron Van Winkle being automatic inside of 40 yards (and pretty good outside of 40).

Ross and Van Winkle are gone, leaving the all-or-nothing Pettis (the “alls” are pretty amazing, at least) and a punting unit that ranked only 90th in punt efficiency. That, plus the potentially inefficient pass defense, could result in some field position disadvantages.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Rutgers 92 22.9 91%
9-Sep Montana NR 40.2 99%
16-Sep Fresno State 115 33.2 97%
23-Sep at Colorado 50 11.4 75%
30-Sep at Oregon State 54 12.0 76%
7-Oct California 55 17.1 84%
14-Oct at Arizona State 58 12.3 76%
28-Oct UCLA 34 13.1 78%
4-Nov Oregon 23 8.9 70%
10-Nov at Stanford 12 -2.9 43%
18-Nov Utah 45 15.6 82%
25-Nov Washington State 40 14.4 80%
Projected S&P+ Rk 13
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 11 / 22
Projected wins 9.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.3 (22)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 28 / 27
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 18 / 9.6
2016 TO Luck/Game +3.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (75%, 50%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 11.5 (0.5)

It hasn’t taken long for Washington to become exactly what we thought it might under Petersen. He needed about a year to build a foundation, and he needed another year for some young pieces to get the requisite experience. Then, ignition. This happened organically and methodically. It is sustainable.

Aside from the secondary, Washington has at least two stars in nearly every unit — Gaskin and Coleman at tailback, Pettis and McClatcher at receiver, Adams and Shelton on the offensive line, Vea and Gaines on the defensive line, plus about eight exciting linebackers — and at least one star redshirt freshman for every unit as well. There’s even a high-caliber backup for Browning at quarterback as well (K.J. Carta-Samuels).

If the secondary only regresses a little bit, the Huskies are right back in the hunt for a Pac-12 title and potential College Football Playoff bid. Bad bounces or some poor injuries luck in the trenches could derail the Huskies, but that sentence goes for just about every team in the country.

The schedule’s at least a little bit tricky, though. Granted, UCLA, Oregon, and Utah all come to Seattle, but early trips to Colorado and Oregon State are not gimmes, and the single biggest threat in the Pac-12 North — Stanford — plays host to the Huskies in November. If they lose that one, they could finish 11-1 and miss the Pac-12 title game. Regardless, they are well-situated for another run.


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