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Analyzing Why the Washington Huskies Don’t Win Big Games

For many Husky fans, the win over North Dakota went a long way to washing the bitter taste of the missed Auburn opportunity out of their mouths. For others, the lingering sense persists that the Huskies haven’t yet earned the moniker of “legit” in the context of the national college football contenders conversation.

That the Huskies have struggled against Top 25 teams since the arrival of Chris Petersen is not debatable. Here is how their record looks in those types of games:

UW vs Top 25 since 2014

Opponent Season Opp Record Opp Ranking UW Ranking Result Points Points Allowed
Opponent Season Opp Record Opp Ranking UW Ranking Result Points Points Allowed
Stanford 2014 2-1 16 NR L 13 20
Oregon 2014 5-1 9 NR L 20 45
ASU 2014 5-1 14 NR L 10 24
UCLA 2014 7-2 18 NR L 30 44
Arizona 2014 7-2 17 NR L 26 27
Oklahoma State 2014 6-6 NR NR L 22 31
Boise State 2015 0-0 23 NR L 13 16
USC 2015 3-1 17 NR W 17 12
Stanford 2015 5-1 10 NR L 14 31
Utah 2015 7-1 13 NR L 23 34
WSU 2015 8-3 24 NR W 45 10
Southern Miss 2015 9-4 NR NR W 44 31
Stanford 2016 3-0 7 10 W 44 6
Utah 2016 7-1 17 4 W 31 24
WSU 2016 8-3 23 6 W 45 17
Colorado 2016 10-2 9 4 W 41 10
Alabama 2016 13-0 1 4 L 7 24
Penn State 2017 10-2 9 12 L 28 35
WSU 2017 9-2 13 17 W 41 14
Auburn 2018 0-0 9 6 L 16 21

Over that time, UW has played 18 games against ranked opponents and lost 11 of them. In addition, they’ve played two bowl games against unranked opponents (Southern Miss and Oklahoma State) going 1-1.

This trend modifies a bit if you shorten the history to just the period of time when the Huskies entered the national top 25 conversation at the beginning of 2016. UW over that time has gone 5-3 against ranked opponents with all five being in-conference (Stanford, Utah, WSU x2, Colorado) and all three losses coming against out-of-conference (Alabama, Penn State, Auburn) teams.

When you look just at the in-conference record, UW’s development looks a little more clear-cut. Here is a look at their in-conference matchups with ranked teams and their corresponding stats:

UW vs In-Conference Ranked Opponents since 2014

Opponent Season Opp Record Opp Ranking UW Ranking Result Points Points Allowed Total Offense Total Defense Yards Rushing Yards Passing Turnover Margin
Opponent Season Opp Record Opp Ranking UW Ranking Result Points Points Allowed Total Offense Total Defense Yards Rushing Yards Passing Turnover Margin
Stanford 2014 2-1 16 NR L 13 20 179 365 81 98 -3
Oregon 2014 5-1 9 NR L 20 45 317 554 133 184 -2
ASU 2014 5-1 14 NR L 10 24 290 285 151 139 2
UCLA 2014 7-2 18 NR L 30 44 366 476 211 155 1
Arizona 2014 7-2 17 NR L 26 27 504 375 245 259 0
USC 2015 3-1 17 NR W 17 12 299 346 135 164 2
Stanford 2015 5-1 10 NR L 14 31 231 478 113 118 1
Utah 2015 7-1 13 NR L 23 34 384 341 124 257 1
WSU 2015 8-3 24 NR W 45 10 443 319 240 203 6
Stanford 2016 3-0 7 10 W 44 6 424 213 214 210 2
Utah 2016 7-1 17 4 W 31 24 385 376 199 186 -1
WSU 2016 8-3 23 6 W 45 17 510 334 168 342 3
Colorado 2016 10-2 9 4 W 41 10 383 163 118 265 3
WSU 2017 9-2 13 17 W 41 14 421 345 328 93 4
TOTAL 15 8-12 28.6 22.7 366.9 355.0 175.7 190.9 19

One thing really jumps out here. A clear corner got turned midway through 2015 where UW went from not all that competitive to dominating in their in-conference ranked game matchups. Since Stanford blew them out in 2015, the Huskies have pretty consistently won both the total yardage and turnover battles in each of these games. It is not surprising that the wins would therefore follow.

But, for whatever reason, that same corner hasn’t been turned with our out-of-conference opponents. With the loss to the Tigers in Week 1, Husky fans are especially focused on these types of games. And appropriately so.

Below is a look at how UW has fared against its “competitive” out-of-conference opponents since Petersen arrived before the 2014 season.

Out of Conference Quality Opponent Analysis

Opponent Season Opp Record Opp Ranking UW Ranking Result Points Points Allowed Total Offense Total Defense Yards Rushing Yards Passing Turnover Margin
Opponent Season Opp Record Opp Ranking UW Ranking Result Points Points Allowed Total Offense Total Defense Yards Rushing Yards Passing Turnover Margin
Oklahoma State 2014 6-6 NR NR L 22 31 369 473 101 152 0
Boise State 2015 0-0 23 NR L 13 16 179 337 29 150 -1
Southern Miss 2015 9-4 NR NR W 44 31 580 375 296 284 -1
Alabama 2016 13-0 1 4 L 7 24 194 396 150 44 -3
Penn State 2017 10-2 9 12 L 28 35 331 545 104 227 2
Auburn 2018 0-0 9 6 L 16 21 398 420 296 102 -2

This record ranks somewhere between “not good” and “stinky trash awful” and has Husky fans understandably concerned. One of the hallmarks of Chris Petersen’s Boise State teams was their ability to outsmart and outscheme superior Power 5 and out-of-conference opponents. For whatever reason, we’ve seen nothing of the sort in his tenure at UW.

The numbers tell the story. In just this cohort of games, UW has surrendered an average of nearly 425 yards per game while gaining just about 342 yards in total offense. The passing game has been particularly a struggle with UW averaging less than 200 yards per game passing and having no games over 300 yards. Turnovers have also been a major issue with UW having a total -5 turnover margin in those games and having just one game—last year’s Fiesta Bowl—with a plus total overall. It was probably that one stat that makes some fans feel like the Penn State game was “closer” than it really was.

One might argue that some of these games include moments in time when UW was still developing under Petersen’s programmatic overhaul. But that isn’t really true. The three OOC opponents analyzed here that were played in 2014 and 2015 were NR, #23, and NR respectively. When UW took on top 10 teams the likes of Alabama, Penn State, and Auburn, they were obviously in that top 10 range themselves. These were all games with “like on like” talent and experience.

So, what’s the issue? Have Petersen and his staff all of a sudden forgotten how to prepare a team to play in big games? Has the magic been lost? Are there systemic problems preventing UW from being more competitive in some of these games and even winning a few of them?

I’m not sure that there are any good answers here. All I can do is offer some hypotheses from both the optimists’ and pessimists’ camps and let you all debate the issues for yourselves.

Pessimists’ Theory #1: The Schemes are too Complex

This theory ties directly back to the “slow start” issue that seems to crop up in all of these types of games.

There was only one of these losses above—ironically, Alabama—where UW actually held a lead at some point in the game. On top of that, there wasn’t a single game among those where UW held the lead at halftime. More times than not, in fact, UW was down by double digits at halftime: 16-0 to Boise, 24-0 to Oklahoma State, 28-14 to Penn State.

The Huskies are not a come-from-behind team. Never in the Chris Petersen era has UW “come from behind” in the fourth quarter to beat a ranked team in or out of conference (Utah was not ranked when UW came from behind last season). So these slow starts are clearly an issue when it comes to UW’s chances at beating good teams.

But what causes slow starts? Many people have argued that the complexity of UW’s offense, in particular, is a contributing factor. I’ve no way to either validate or invalidate that argument. It could be true. Or it could be that the scripted plays to open games aren’t well conceived. Or it could be that opponents throw more curve balls at UW than what they ever put on tape. Or it could just be bad luck.

Optimists’ Theory #1: Rebuilds Aren’t Linear

You can see this clearly in UW’s performance against quality in-conference teams. They lost every single game until they stole one from a USC team that was probably the better team on that day. They mixed up a couple of more games against Stanford and Utah and then, boom, the winning streak against ranked PAC 12 teams was on.

Rebuilds are fundamentally rooted in the development of talent. Talent development is a function of both training and repetition against good competition. That UW has turned the corner against familiar competition sooner than less familiar competition should be expected.

In fact, the good vibes that many Husky fans were feeling after UW’s loss against Auburn were rooted in the fact that, in many facets of the game, Washington outplayed the Tigers. This could and should be viewed as a step forward in that progression curve against good competition.

Pessimists’ Theory #2: UW Isn’t Stocking Enough Quality Talent

This notion is going to generate some consternation. It is rooted in the argument that has been bandied about Husky Nation since the coaching change: can Petersen recruit enough talent to win at a high level?

The truth of the matter is that UW’s recruiting rankings over the past few seasons have not been as high as their relative rankings in the polls over that same time. I’m not trying to incite an argument about the value of recruiting services, but I don’t think it is controversial to say that based on pure talent, UW hasn’t often (ever?) had a true man-for-man talent advantage against its major out-of-conference opponents. They’ve achieved their poll rankings by outplaying their talent rankings.

One might argue that this is bound to change in the coming years as UW’s recruiting rankings have gotten progressively better. However, one could also argue that UW really hasn’t closed that gap nearly enough. Gaps in recruiting years where UW didn’t take defensive linemen or examples of flips like Ale Kaho and Marlon Tuipulotu could be construed as evidence that UW may not be there yet.

Optimists’ Theory #2: It’s Chance

This argument is based on the fact that it really isn’t possible to point to a single root cause as to why UW has struggled so much in out-of-conference games against Power 5 opponents. The anti-Jake Browning segment might argue that the passing game has been insufficient in each of those losses, but that doesn’t really hold water once you take into account the stats that UW put up in the passing game against their in-conference top 25 wins. There are certainly games where the passing game struggled (Alabama, Boise State). However, the passing game stats in most games look like the passing game stats when UW wins those big games. The best you could really argue is that the passing game doesn’t elevate in those tough out-of-conference contests.

If it is really just a matter of chance that UW hasn’t gotten some key breaks in games like Auburn, Penn State, and Boise, then one might surmise that there will eventually be a regression to the mean. Eventually those breaks will come back UW’s way and some wins might follow.

Unfortunately, it will be a few more months before Washington will get the chance to answer the critics in a game against a legit out-of-conference opponent. Let’s hope UW fans can keep their cool—and their positive outlook—until then.

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