I feel a little sympathy for Jacob Eason.
The University of Washington football team is in the midst of its most disappointing season during the Chris Petersen coaching era. Eason, by virtue of being the starting quarterback, is one of the faces of this stuttering campaign by default.
But this season has not been a case of Eason letting Washington down. Rather it’s been a case of the Huskies letting him down.
In the Lake Stevens High School graduate, Petersen finally has the towering, big-armed, NFL-bound quarterback that offensive-minded coaches covet. Yet the Huskies find themselves spending their bye week trying to figure out how to salvage their 2019.
Washington entered its bye week 2-3 in Pac-12 play and 5-3 overall. Last Saturday’s 35-31 home loss to hated rival Oregon left the Huskies 2.5 games behind the Ducks in the North Division standings, with Washington having four games remaining. That means a third trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game in four years is about as likely as Donald Trump tweeting support for a democrat.
This isn’t the position the Huskies were supposed to find themselves in at this juncture of the season. Washington was ranked 13th in the Associated Press’ preseason poll. In the Pac-12 preseason media poll the Huskies were in a virtual dead heat with Oregon to win the North — both teams received 17 first-place votes, with the Ducks edging the Huskies by a single point at 190-189.
But as of now Washington is barely hanging on to the “Others receiving votes” paragraph of the top 25. This sliding phenomenon is a first during the Petersen era. Since taking over in 2014 there’s only been one year where the Huskies began the season ranked and fell out of the rankings, that being his first year — and Washington opened in the last position at No. 25.
So is this Eason’s fault? Not remotely.
Eason’s numbers are good. He’s completed 67.4% of his passes, averages 247.4 yards per game at 8.5 yards per attempt and he has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16-3. His passer efficiency rating of 158.9 ranked 20th in the country among 106 qualifiers coming into the weekend, and it’s better than each of his predecessor Jake Browning’s four seasons except Browning’s sophomore season in 2016, when he threw an astonishing 43 TDs.
What makes Eason’s numbers even more impressive is that he’s done it with a lack of weapons. Salvon Ahmed is a solid running back, and Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton are capable tight ends. But Washington is lacking game-breakers among its receivers. There’s no one among that group who truly stretches the field, and the receivers have had drop issues as well.
Think of what Eason, with his cannon, could accomplish with a John Ross or a Dante Pettis to throw at. And where are all those four-star receiver recruits Washington has pulled in the past three years?
As a result, Eason’s big arm has been largely left in the holster. In much of Washington’s games he’s been reduced to throwing a string of slants, receiver screens and quick outs. Peterson finally has his deep-throwing quarterback, and he can’t really unleash him.
Granted, Eason didn’t play well in Washington’s losses to Cal and Stanford. But he was excellent against Oregon, producing arguably his best performance of the season against the Huskies’ toughest foe. And Eason had Washington in range at the end — who knows what happens if the officials throw the flag for pass interference on the decisive fourth-down incompletion to Puka Nacua?
The real culprit has been Washington’s defense. The Huskies have seen a steady rise on the defensive side of the ball since Petersen arrived, and the past two years Washington finished fifth in the nation in scoring defense, having allowed just 16.1 points per game in 2017 and 16.4 last year.
This year? The Huskies are giving up 21.5 points per contest, ranked 36th in FBS coming into the weekend. The Dawgs went from allowing 306.2 yards per game last season (12th in the nation) to 372.4 this season (57th).
And the defense has capitulated at just the wrong times in Washington’s losses. The Huskies had the game won against Cal, only for the defense to allow the Bears to go 74 yards in less than two minutes with no timeouts remaining to kick the game-winning field goal. Washington led most of the game against Oregon, but the Ducks ran the ball down the Huskies’ throats during the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that proved to be the difference.
For so many years the concern about the Huskies was about how the defense would cope with the loss of so much talent to the NFL, only for the defense to be even better the following season. This appears to be the year that’s finally caught up to the Dawgs.
Now, the season isn’t over. The Huskies could win the rest of their Pac-12 games, finish 9-3 and get themselves into a decent bowl game.
It’s just unfortunate that in what’s likely to be Eason’s lone season with Washington, the prevailing thought will be about what could have been.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.