SEATTLE — College football’s current landscape has little margin for error. One loss isn’t crippling. Two losses, however, is a death blow for any team with playoff aspirations.
No. 11 Washington (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) is somewhere in the middle. The Huskies have a single defeat and are still in the conversation when it comes to reaching the College Football Playoff semifinals for a consecutive season. UW’s loss — a 13-7 defeat on Oct. 14 at Arizona State — magnified a number of issues including slow starts. The Huskies have made a habit of trudging along until picking it up in the second half.
Such a trait doomed the Huskies against the Sun Devils. Then came the bye week. UW has used the past 10 or so days to both improve mistakes while self-evaluating. For the Huskies, the belief is they’ve found the cure for their slow starts. They won’t know for sure until their 12:30 p.m. Saturday kickoff against UCLA (4-3, 2-2) at Husky Stadium.
“It’s a little bit frustrating to not move the ball like we want to, especially as a receiver,” Huskies senior receiver Dante Pettis said. “You want the passes to come your way. When things aren’t going well, you’re like, ‘Ah man. We should do this.’ But you just have to trust the game plan and keep pushing. Really, it just comes down to details and that’s what we’ve been working on this week.”
UW has shown glimpses of being a big-play offense capable of scoring early and often. The Huskies scored 35 in the first half against Montana and scored 41 in the opening two quarters versus Fresno State.
First-half barrages have been harder to come by since those games. UW has scored 24 points in the first two quarters over its past four games.
Senior center Coleman Shelton said Wednesday the bye week allowed the Huskies to self-evaluate their mistakes while having the time needed to find solutions.
“It’s just simple. We gotta start faster,” Shelton said. “I mean, that’s the way we see it. We gotta go out and just do our thing on offense and get ready to go.”
The Huskies certainly have the personnel to find a quick offensive rhythm.
Junior quarterback Jake Browning has thrown for 1,605 yards, 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions this season. With 73 career touchdown passes, he’s two away from tying Keith Price for the most in school history.
Tailback Myles Gaskin, who is also a junior, is one of the more consistent rushers in college football. He’s rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Gaskin has already ran for 626 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017.
Pettis’ 44 receptions are nine shy of his career best he set last season. He has 472 yards and six touchdowns. One of the nation’s more electrifying players, he’s averaging a career-low 10.7 yards per catch.
Browning, Gaskin and Pettis are about as good as it gets. Toss in burgeoning talents like freshman tight end Hunter Bryant and redshirt sophomore receiver Quinten Pounds and venerable senior tight end Will Dissly. It’s evident the Huskies have options.
If that’s not enough, its possible UW could also take advantage of UCLA’s shortcomings in an attempt to get on the board early.
The Bruins are one of the most porous defenses in college football. They’re 113th out of 128 teams in scoring defense with opponents averaging 36.7 points.
UCLA is 122nd in total defense and last in rushing defense. The Bruins are 101st in allowing plays of more than 20 yards, 127th in plays of more than 30 yards, 124th in plays of more than 40 yards, 121st in plays of more than 50 yards and 126th in plays of more than 60 yards.
“It’s such a mental game. That’s what it is,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said after Thursday’s practice. “We’ve practiced good most of the time. It’s now about how we’ll show up. It seems so simple and it’s really not.
“But just really to show up to play the best we’ve ever played. If we can do that, we’ll feel good about ourselves and obviously, we didn’t the week before and so that’s kind of been the focus.”