SEATTLE — Asked to assess Jake Browning’s last game, Washington coach Chris Petersen eventually began analyzing his star quarterback’s season.
He’s not the only one. Many pundits and UW fans have asked what’s changed with Browning over the last 12 months.
This time a year ago, both he and the Huskies were at the vanguard of college football. Browning threw for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns to help UW reach the College Football Playoff.
UW (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) could still win 10 games yet may not even play in the Pac-12 Championship game. As for Browning, he’s passed for 2,097 yards and 16 touchdowns, a far cry from his stellar 2016 season.
Petersen touched on the two main reasons: Tough defenses and changes in the receiving corps. Still, there’s plenty that Browning has done right.
“You look at his numbers,” Petersen said during his Monday press conference. “He’s a pretty efficient thrower.”
Accuracy and efficiency has been one of Browning’s stronger facets this year. He’s only passed 256 times and is on pace for 333 attempts, which would be a career low.
But he’s completed 68.4 percent of his passes which is the highest mark of his time at UW. Browning connected on 63.3 percent of his attempts as a freshman and 62.1 percent last season.
“We all know he can stay in the pocket maybe a little bit more,” Petersen said. “I’ve said this before. It’s like scrambling quarterbacks can be a little tough to deal with because they can make so many things happen.
“It’s like, ‘When do I stay in, when do I not?’ But Jake’s been making a lot of plays outside the pocket.”
Browning’s ability to extend plays has benefited the Huskies at times.
Against Stanford, however, it got them into trouble.
UW was trying to rally against Stanford only to have Browning take two costly sacks in the fourth quarter. The first was a 18-yard loss on third down which was followed by the Cardinal scoring to take a 30-14 lead with 9:40 left.
The Huskies would soon cut the score to 30-22, the defense got a key stop and it gave Browning a platform for a game-tying drive.
Browning and UW were forced into 3rd-and-12 which was compounded by him taking a 9-yard sack on fourth down.
Petersen said after the game UW’s staff does not encourage Browning to take sacks and added his quarterback should have thrown the ball away.
His stance changed a few days later.
“He’s better scrambler, obviously than everybody thinks he is,” Petersen said. “But its a fine line between, ‘Do I need to hang in there and get to another read? Do I need to stick my foot in the ground, get vertical and go east to west?’
“It’s easy for all of us to sit here and second-guess.”
Petersen was asked if teams are blitzing less and dropping more people into coverage to trip up Browning.
The fourth-year Huskies coach said opposing teams did it last year too. He compared it to a “cat-and-mouse game” by saying its about trying to call the right play instead of being caught out by a defense.
“I think you talk to anybody in the country, it’s like, that can be tough to throw the ball in seams and underneath,” Petersen said, “You go deep outside, the percentages there are going to be a little bit lower. So you’re calling, sometimes, ball-control throws and that’s tough when they’re dropping that many guys.”
OK. How much does Browning’s dynamic change when he doesn’t have a receiver like John Ross?
Ross was the fastest receiver in college football and destroyed secondaries. He caught 81 passes for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Or, to frame it another way, he accounted for 33 percent of Browning’s yards and nearly 40 percent of his touchdown passes.
“John Ross, I mean, he’s a first-round draft pick. I don’t care what position, you go first round, that guy’s a game-changing player,” Petersen said. “If we’re talking about a lineman, whatever, that changes the game. Certainly, if its a receiver, that can change the game.”
Browning has senior receiver Dante Pettis. He leads UW with 54 receptions for 612 yards and seven touchdowns. Pettis has one more catch than last year but is still behind last year’s totals by more than 200 yards and eight touchdowns.
Identifying, developing and keeping a No. 2 receiver healthy has been a challenge. The Huskies have lost junior Chico McClatcher and sophomore Quinten Pounds to season-ending injuries. They’ve also lost freshman tight end Hunter Bryant, who was second on the team with 22 catches for 331 yards.
Is there anything the receivers can do to assist Browning when it comes to those coverages? Are they allowed to improvise? Or do they stay on their routes?
“They would only (change their routes) if he’s scrambling,” Petersen said. “We have scrambling rules on top of that but there is some leeway in terms of how to find space.
“But, no, we would not tell them to do their own thing unless it breaks down and he’s out of the pocket.”