When the third quarter ends against Oregon State on Friday, defensive back Elijah Molden will be searching for the balance between awareness and overthinking.
It would be impossible not to acknowledge the Huskies’ recent struggles in the fourth quarter. It’s all there in the box scores from back-to-back losses to Oregon and Utah. Double-digit leads followed by a limp to the finish, a close loss, another missed opportunity.
But there’s a difference between using that knowledge to refocus and dwelling on a persistent problem. As Molden and the Huskies attempt to put an end to their losing streak, they’ll have to walk it.
“When we’re out there, we can’t think too much like, ‘Oh, it’s the fourth quarter. We struggle at this,’” Molden said after practice on Tuesday. “That’s not a way to play football. Really, it’s like a challenge and really that’s how we look at it.”
In three of its four losses this season — Cal, Oregon and Utah — UW once led by double figures. UW was outscored 24-13 in those three final quarters, including 21-7 by Oregon and Utah. Those two teams also out-gained UW 205-129 in the fourth.
You know the whole story by now. Utah ate up clock in the final quarter, launching two touchdown drives that each lasted more than 5 minutes and spanned more than 80 yards. The Huskies only got the ball twice in the fourth. They went three-and-out on their first possession. Later, they scored a touchdown on a 19-play drive that ate up too much clock to give them a chance to come back from the two-possession deficit.
And Oregon? The Ducks ended the third quarter with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Justin Herbert to Mycah Pittman to cut UW’s lead to three points. Then, with just more than 5 minutes left in the game, the Ducks marched 70 yards in eight plays for the game-winning touchdown. UW’s offense twice went three-and-out in the fourth quarter.
To the Huskies, it’s all painfully, frustratingly familiar.
“You’re kind of like, ‘What’s going on? Why is this happening?’” said outside linebacker Ryan Bowman. “That’s when the frustration kicks in, you know. You really just got to look yourself in the mirror, ‘What can I do better?’ and how we can really bring guys together, get together as a team to watch film and those kind of things.
“All it is is preparation. We’re starting off really strong. Maybe we’re not thinking straight at the end of games so we have to think back to how we’re practicing. Are we executing at a high level like we were at the beginning of practice? This week we’ve been flipping the focus and making sure we’re executing at a high level at the end of practice.”
Practice and execution. From head coach Chris Petersen to his assistant coaches to the players, that was the theme of every interview this week. It seems like UW is missing qualities they can’t develop on the practice field — Consistency, confidence, perhaps even a killer instinct.
But the Huskies disagree.
All week, they’ve put a renewed focus on finishing practices as strong as they start them. Petersen said the end-of-game issues don’t stem from fatigue. UW isn’t tired when the fourth quarter begins — at least not physically.
“It really has to do with just locking in,” Petersen said. “It’s like: Here’s a good play, here’s a good play. OK, here’s a critical situation. That’s not a good play. That’s on us as coaches to try and recreate than and simulate what that looks like and feels like.”
It would be easy, even understandable, for UW to shift some of the blame to the youth on the roster. The Huskies lost four-year starters at quarterback and running back. They lost nine starters on defense and have two true freshman starting in the secondary. But senior center Nick Harris isn’t one for excuses.
“I don’t think it matters who’s on the team, whether it’s a bunch of old guys or a bunch of young guys,” Harris said. “I think it’s just having the mentality just to … you want to win. We all want to win, obviously. There’s nobody on this team that doesn’t want to win.
“When we have to hunker down and make sure we take advantage of the possessions we are given in the second half, we just have to make sure we’re as detailed as we’ve ever been. At times, it doesn’t happen for whatever reason. I don’t think it’s a matter of maturity. I think it’s just a matter of when we need to be our best, when we need to execute at our best in the first half and the second half.”
Harris and most of UW’s veterans have never been in this position before. The Huskies haven’t lost more than four games since they went 7-6 in 2015. That was also the last time they had consecutive losses. This is all unfamiliar territory, but with three games left on the schedule — at Oregon State, at Colorado and home against Washington State — the Huskies are focused on putting an end to their losing streak and finishing the regular season strong.
Maybe it sounds backward but for UW, that starts in the fourth quarter. The practices this week have been tailored around it. Harris said there’s been an extra emphasis on executing mock end-of-game scenarios. Molden said more players have been showing up early and staying late. Bowman put it simply: Closing practices strong has been “the whole focus.”
Both Bowman and Harris pushed back on the idea that the Huskies have a confidence issue. It’s more about preparation, they said, and follow through. But whatever the real reason, Bowman knows he’ll be thinking about the fourth-quarter issues on Friday. Not too much, but just enough.
“Just thinking about how I really got execute here in the fourth quarter,” Bowman said. “These have to be my best quarters right here. Whatever I did in the first half, these have to be 10 times better.”