Although quarterback Jake Browning has helped Washington to an undefeated record, the Huskies have started slowly in the first half. Timothy Gonzelez AP
Although quarterback Jake Browning has helped Washington to an undefeated record, the Huskies have started slowly in the first half. Timothy Gonzelez AP

University of Washington

Huskies hoping they find faster footing on home turf against Cal

October 06, 2017 04:30 PM

UPDATED October 08, 2017 06:51 AM

Sometimes, Chris Petersen just shrugs his shoulders.

His sixth-ranked Washington Huskies have won all five of their games convincingly this season, so much they have not had a suspenseful fourth quarter. A lot has gone right:

▪ Even after three of the UW’s top secondary members from 2016 went off to the NFL , the new starters have been just as good. They lead the country in fewest yards given up per completion (7.93 yards).

▪ The Huskies have the top scoring defense in the Pac 12, giving up just 10.8 points per game. They rank No. 2 behind Oregon in scoring points (44.0 ppg).

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▪ They have committed the third-fewest penalties (22) in the conference behind Arizona State and Arizona. And their 12 turnovers forced are tied for second behind Utah (14).

“Nobody seems to want to talk about that as much as the other stuff,” Petersen said.

The other “stuff” would have to do with what goes on in the first 30 minutes of games with the UW offense.

“Certainly things (are) not clicking on all cylinders,” Petersen said.

The Huskies are hoping that trend turns around starting Saturday night when they return home to face improving California at Husky Stadium (7:45 p.m., ESPN).

Players and coaches have noted the team finds a way to make necessary adjustments at halftime to put opponents away. But wide receiver Dante Pettis conceded, “I wouldn’t want to rely” on doing that all the time.

Part of the issue might be comparing this year’s output to last year’s.

In 2016, the Huskies barreled out of the gates quickly. Of their 71 total offensive touchdowns in 14 games, 45 were scored in the first half. Only USC (zero) and Alabama (one) were the teams the UW did not score multiple first-half touchdowns against.

They’ve kept that score-quickly trend going at home this season, tallying four offensive touchdowns against Montana, and then added another five against Fresno State.

But what has transpired on the road has given Petersen enough cause for concern.

After being blanked in the season opener at Rutgers for two quarters, UW scored one touchdown in the first half at Colorado (Myles Gaskin’s 1-yard run), then opened last week’s game at Oregon State by scoring a touchdown on Jake Browning’s 11-yard scramble. That was it.

Petersen has gotten a little testy this week when asked about the recent lethargic starts.

“How do you fix the turnover situation when it’s not going in your favor?” Petersen said. “It’s the same thing — you practice on it, move things up in practice and get it going a little bit more. It’s not because they are not trying, so you’re always trying to be creative as coaches to fix every single problem that you have.”

Petersen noted some smaller things have been cleaned up during practices this week, but added, “Saturdays get your attention in a hurry.”

And if the Huskies are not sharp from the get-go Saturday, they know they are facing a conference foe that has three come-from-behind-in-the-second-half victories under its belt.

“Practice isn’t the games, but they’re on it and they know what’s coming into our stadium — a good football team that plays really hard,” Petersen said. “Like I say, this is the best team we’ve faced so far.”

Huskies gameday

CALIFORNIA (3-2, 0-2 IN PAC-12 NORTH) AT NO. 6 WASHINGTON (5-0, 2-0)

7:45 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium, Seattle

The line: UW by 27 1/2.

TV: ESPN. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.

Outlook: If you just look at the numbers, the Bears sure do look like a team rebuilding under a new coach. On offense and defense, they rank in the top half of the Pac-12 in one statistical category – interceptions (tied for fourth with seven).

If you look at wins and losses, however, Cal might have the most impressive resume to-date of any UW opponents, with wins against an ACC team (North Carolina) and an SEC team (Ole Miss).

So, how good or bad is Cal really?

Talk to any Huskies assistant or player, they will all tell you the same thing: They are much improved over last season.

That is a testament to Justin Wilcox, the former UW defensive coordinator who got his first shot at being a coach after Cal fired Sonny Dykes last year.

For the most part, the Bears have played pretty solid defense, and boast one of the better linebacker corps in the Pac-12.

Their two inside guys are Washington products. Devante Downs, a Mountlake Terrace High School graduate, leads the conference in tackles (54), and plays as well downhill as any defender on the West Coast.

And Evan Weaver, The News Tribune’s 2015 high school state player of the year from Gonzaga Prep, just made his second career start last week at Oregon.

But the Bears are coming off arguably their worst showing of the season in a 45-24 loss to the Ducks. Their defense gave up 328 rushing yards.

That will be a matchup certainly to watch, especially since UW running back Myles Gaskin (66 carries, 468 yards, six touchdowns) has quietly found his groove with back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, including a career-high 202 yards against Colorado two weeks ago.

But if Cal loads up to stop Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, just remember quarterback Jake Browning tossed a career-high six touchdown passes a season ago in the Huskies’ 66-27 victory.

This is a Bears team that will continue to improve, giving its fan base something to look forward to in the near future.

But they won’t be ready for this step up quite yet.

The pick: Washington 52, Cal 23.

Todd Milles: tmilles@thenewstribune.com