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Cal Thrilled To Watch Washington Needlessly Bury Themselves

There’s a famous Napoleon who played for the Washington Huskies back in the day, but to quote the other Napoleon, never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

So when Justin Wilcox watched Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen pull his four-year starting quarterback mid-way through the third quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium, he had to be of two minds.

The first was, that’s no big deal. We swap out our quarterbacks all the time. It’s part of our offensive identity. But the second thought had to be – what are the Huskies doing? That’s not what they do. 

And honestly, when is the last time you’ve seen a starting quarterback pulled mid-way through a game based on the idea that he was solely responsible for the offense’s futility?

When has Wilcox seen one of his mentors in Petersen make a decision that, on the surface, reeked of equal parts frustration and desperation?

One thing the California Head Coach wasn’t going to do was get in the way of UW self-destructing.

“Pulling Jake (Browning) out had more to do with me, trying to do something to help this offense, way more than it did with Jake,” Petersen said after the Huskies’ 12-10 loss. “Jake is a competitor, he does everything we ask, but we had to try and help our offense out somehow, someway and we’re scoring seven points this late in the game we have to look and work at this way or that way. We are going to try something new… We had planned on putting Jake back in, going to try to shake things up, and try to get something done.”

So shaking things up meant putting in a new quarterback at your own 11-yard line while you’re ahead in the game? Washington has created an image, for better or worse, of a grind-it-out team this year, so it wasn’t exactly breaking news to see them struggle on the road against a very good defense.  But the Huskies were up 7-6 with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter and California’s offense wasn’t operating at peak efficiency themselves.

A couple of series later, the experiment was over. On his first series of the day, redshirt freshman Jake Haener threw down the middle of the field looking for Andre Baccellia and instead found California’s. Evan Weaver, who took it 37 yards for a pick-six.

Just like that, it was Cal 12-7.

“We will learn from it and move forward,” Petersen said. “The one thing is, is that I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over; going to try to do something to help these guys out.”

What’s interesting about that quote is that coming from Petersen, that sounds like something he’d say during his Monday press conference, not post-game after switching quarterbacks.

Only the UW coaches can answer why things became so inept they felt the only answer was to pull their four-year starter in the middle of the game.

And as you’d expect, Browning was furious when he realized when the decision was relayed to him. He certainly wasn’t having the kind of day you’d write home about, but when it comes to the litany of things that sucked about the Washington offense on Saturday, his performance would have been two-thirds of the way down the list.

The offensive line wasn’t opening holes. The running backs ran tentatively. The receivers and tight ends dropped passes. And yes, the quarterbacks threw interceptions. Do I need to continue? It sure felt to me like it was a group effort all the way. 

“Put him in a tough spot,” Hamdan would later say of Haener’s performance post-game. You don’t say?

Aren’t the coaches supposed to put their players in positions to succeed? 

Former UW quarterback and current ESPN analyst Brock Huard tweeted out that about an hour or so removed from the result, there’s just something way off about the combination of Chris Petersen/Bush Hamdan/Jake Browning this year. The irony is that 2018 was going to be the year where said brain trust was going to be the thing that propelled the offense forward in a year where they didn’t have quite the number of playmakers they’d had in the past. It was going to be Petersen’s offensive genius, combined with Hamdan’s youthful verve and Browning’s cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow persona that would scheme yards and points into existence.

That hasn’t happened.

Washington’s offense is only generating 26.5 points per game so far in 2018. They averaged 10 more points a game last year, and 15 points per game more in 2016. And that was done with an offensive coordinator in Jonathan Smith whose reputation with the fans ran from very hot to very cold during his time at Montlake.

So what is it going to take to sort out the damage caused by the benching? In the short term, Browning wasn’t able to come in and lead the Huskies to victory. After giving up the pick-six, Haener was shelved in favor of the four-year starter again.

Aaron Fuller’s 28-yard punt return to the Cal 22 with 6:56 to play gave the Huskies life, and Browning’s scramble and strike to Ty Jones for 23 yards got UW down to the 20.

But as it has been all year long, Washington struggled once again to find the end zone after getting into the red zone. They settled for a 26-yard field goal, meaning another field goal could win them the game.

That chance never came. As it was last season at Arizona State, Cal took advantage and leaned on veteran running back Patrick Laird to salt away a hard-fought win.

The Golden Bears stood by and watched the opponent get in their own way, rarely having to do anything extraordinary.

And now I have to wonder what kind of damage has been done in the long-term. Or maybe it needed to be blown up anyway? And how did it come to such a point where these drastic actions took place in the heat of battle? 

I keep going back to Petersen, Hamdan, and Browning. For four years it’s felt like Petersen and Browning have always been on the same page. It may not have produced the results they always wanted, but they were in it together and Browning was an extension of Petersen on the field.

And bringing Hamdan back this year just a season removed from his involvement in helping the Huskies get to a College Football Playoff semifinal felt like more of the same. Hamdan learned at Petersen’s knee; there was no one better to continue Pete’s teachings and continue that feeling of continuity and commitment to the process.

After seeing Browning’s reaction to being benched, it’s easy to speculate. Has that trust eroded? Are they all still on the same page? Or do they have different ideas that are clashing? In a coaching room where Pete Kwiatkowski selflessly gave up his coordinator title so that Jimmy Lake could stay on staff, the lack of ego has been a refreshing part of what has made Washington’s staff so successful. But did we see, for a brief moment Saturday, a chink in the armor? A rare, unfiltered peak inside the decision-making process? 

And who made the decision? Petersen will ultimately take responsibility for the call, and Hamdan said it was a staff decision – but someone started it. Will it generate friction between said person and Browning going forward? Will the senior let it all roll off his back with nonchalance like he does most post-game media appearances? Or will the apparent no vote of confidence be a bridge too far this time?  

With all that swirls around the Huskies at this point, the 24-hour rule is going to be tested like never before under Petersen. They are going to have to flush the loss out of their system, and right quick. 

Hamdan said that Haener had been practicing well this past week. If that’s the case – and the problems with Washington’s offense just didn’t appear this week – wouldn’t it have made more sense to start Haener from the beginning of game week? Like starting this Monday? 

At least in that scenario everyone would be communicating and the coaches’ objectives would be transparent to all relevant parties. Obviously Browning wouldn’t be thrilled with the decision, but making the switch last week to coincide with game-planning and hitting Cal by surprise from the start, at least would have implied a strategy and intent to create a spark in a more willing and skillful manner. 

Doing it with 17 minutes to go in a football game on the road when both teams are battling like crazy hardly felt calculated or composed. It felt like a desperate move from a staff not known for making desperate moves, especially with a result in the balance.

So whatever is going on between the heads of state on offense may linger the rest of the year, and that’s a big problem. There may not be a straightforward answer. Getting players back like Myles Gaskin, Hunter Bryant, Chico McClatcher and Trey Adams can’t come soon enough. But their exclusion doesn’t explain why UW benched Jake Browning.

And frankly, those who made the call will never come up with a good explanation, because there isn’t one.  

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