The Washington Huskies have a true freshman starting quarterback and three freshmen starting on the offensive line, so offensive struggles this season should not be a surprise. That’s just how it’s going to be sometimes.
But it’s when those youthful mistakes occur concurrently that the Huskies find themselves in particularly dire straits. Or find themselves gaining just 259 yards from scrimmage against a California defense not reputed for stellar performance.
Better days are surely ahead for freshman quarterback Jake Browning, and for UW’s ultrayoung, still-learning-their-assignments offensive line. In the interim, they’re going to be up against it — like in Saturday’s 30-24 loss to the Golden Bears, when a frustrating combination of poor pass protection and a skittish young quarterback yielded a mostly ineffective passing game.
Browning completed 17 of 28 passes for 152 yards with two interceptions, a lost fumble and five sacks that cost the Huskies a total of 40 yards. He spent much of the game scrambling, though Huskies coach Chris Petersen doesn’t place all of the blame for that on UW’s offensive line.
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Sometimes, Browning simply needs to get rid of the ball, or step up in the pocket instead of trying to scramble backward or sideways. But that’s a difficult concept for a freshman to immediately grasp when the pass protection is, too often, inadequate. It can make for a jumpy quarterback, even on plays when the protection is at least good enough to allow for a proper throw downfield.
“I think it’s a hard dilemma for any quarterback,” Petersen said. “If he’s not feeling great about the protection and he’s been pressured a couple of times, (he thinks) ‘OK, I feel a little bit of pressure and then I’ve got to trust that it’s going to get picked up.’ That’s a very fine line, like, ‘Do I hang or do I get out of here?’ We’ve got to get better at that whole thing. We’ve got to protect him better, and he’s got to learn to trust it a little bit and get the ball out on time and those types of things.”
Petersen used the example of Browning rolling out on a designed naked bootleg pass, only to find that the defensive end read the play and was in position to either hit Browning or force him to throw the ball away.
Browning, Petersen said, needs to learn to embrace the second option, rather than trying to juke a Pac-12 lineman and keep the play alive. That, too often, will result in a drive-crippling loss of yardage.
In other words: there’s nothing wrong with second-and-10, if the likely alternative is second-and-20.
“He can juke that guy, which he’s done a little bit, and then make something happen,” Petersen said. “But those are the things that are split-second decisions that we’ve got to learn to fight another down and keep us in manageable (downs and distances).”
These are lessons Petersen is sure Browning will learn sooner rather than later. He’s already shown the kind of promise that made him such a touted recruit out of California’s Folsom High School, where he threw a national record 229 touchdown passes in three seasons. Browning set UW’s single-game freshman passing record (368 yards) against Utah State on Sept. 19. His talent is apparent. But there is no substitution for experience, and the Huskies have little of that.
“The guy’s done some really good things, as we all know, and he’s going to continue to get better,” Petersen said.
“… It’s so fast, and it’s just different than he’s used to. That’s going to take a minute to get up to speed. We’ve got to play that fast and have to make those decisions at all times. And he will.”
Petersen said the Huskies’ bye week — they don’t play again until Oct. 8 at USC — won’t be tremendously different from a normal week of practice. Some teams try to give their younger players more practice repetitions during a bye, but the Huskies already play so many young players that “we’re working with them anyway, so let’s practice as usual,” Petersen said. “I mean, trust me, we’re going back right now and looking at everything we’ve done the first four games. It starts with us. How do we coach them better? What are we missing here that’s not clean enough? Are we missing something? So we’re in the process of doing that.” … Petersen said he hasn’t yet studied USC, but that “I know who they’ve recruited … and, yeah, they’ve got some guys. I know that.” … Why, on a pair of short California kickoffs Saturday, were the Huskies ruled to have called a fair catch when the kick returner didn’t signal for one? The explanation Petersen received: a UW player “nowhere near” the returner put his hand in the air, signaling “sky kick” to his teammates. The officials apparently interpreted that as a fair-catch signal, which by rule applies to all 11 players on a kickoff. “It’s the first time it’s ever come up in however many years of doing this,” Petersen said. “But if that’s what it is, we’ll change our mechanics.”
Christian Caple: 253-597-8437
OCT. 8: Washington (2-2 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) at USC (3-1, 1-1), 6 p.m., ESPN, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM