‘You got to get it figured out.’ UW focuses on fixing ground game before Utah

UW coach Chris Petersen reflects on win over North Dakota

Chris Petersen reflects on UW's 45-3 victory over North Dakota at his weekly press conference on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.
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Chris Petersen reflects on UW's 45-3 victory over North Dakota at his weekly press conference on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.
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Chris Petersen wasn’t happy with the performance of Washington’s rushing game in Saturdays’ win over North Dakota. He was blunt in his evaluation, saying simply that it was “not good.”

On Monday afternoon, Petersen revisited the subject. His evaluation? The Huskies weren’t clean enough.

“(North Dakota) is a movement defense, twisting and looping,” he said. “Our guys were probably playing a little too tentative. When you do that, it usually never looks good.”

That’s something that needs to change before the season-opener against Utah, a team that held its first two opponents — Weber State and North Illinois — to an average of 81.5 rushing yards per game.

The Utes had one of the Pac-12’s top three defenses last season, finishing third in total defense (338.4 yard per game) and rushing defense (131.3) and fourth in passing defense (207.1). According to Petersen, this year’s defense could be even better.

“This defense is as good as I’ve seen,” he said. “They are always known for defense. They have some really good players that have played for them a long time. They’re extremely aggressive. This is one of the best defenses in our league, for sure, if not the best.”

In an ideal world, Petersen said, teams would play out their non-conference schedule before opening conference play. Instead, the Huskies will play two key Pac-12 games — Utah on Saturday and Arizona State on Sept. 22 — before playing their final non-conference game against BYU on Sept. 29.

“You’ve just got so much more building to do,” Petersen said. “You’re building throughout the year, but certainly these first few games, you just really feel like you’ve got some things to work on.”

The Huskies are definitely still building their ground game, which Petersen said takes longer to develop during a season than the passing game.

That was true for UW in 2017.

Despite winning their first three games last season against Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State, respectively, the Huskies averaged just 129.6 rushing yards per game. Against Rutgers and Fresno State, they failed to reach 100 rushing yards.

“It makes sense,” Petersen said. “How do you practice the run game in the off-season? You can’t. You can practice the pass game all the time. You can throw all the time. To practice the running game, you put pads on, have those five guys getting real reps. It takes a while to get into that rhythm.”

While the slower start was expected, UW is nearly out of time to get on track. Last season, in a 33-30 victory over the Utes, the Huskies had 123 rushing yards. Myles Gaskin led the way with 17 carries for 52 yards.

“You got to get it figured out,” Petersen said, “because (Utah) is a significantly different, better run defense than we’ve seen.”