John McGrath

John McGrath: Huskies miss opportunities in messy performance

The dismissal of Marcus Peters from the Washington football team figured to weaken the Huskies’ defense, but devastate it? Can any single player, aside from a quarterback, be that valuable?

It appeared so Saturday, when Washington was helpless to stop a UCLA attack that scored whenever, wherever and however it wanted. Given the transcendent ability of Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley — and the fact three freshmen were starting in the Huskies secondary — the 44-30 shellacking wasn’t unexpected.

And yet the blowout seemed to catch Washington coach Chris Petersen by surprise. Late in the first half, after it became evident his team’s fate was to serve as extras in a Hundley video highlight package, Petersen still was playing for field position, oblivious to the notion that punting at midfield was tantamount to a turnover at midfield.

Case in point: With fewer than four minutes remaining in the second quarter and the Huskies facing a fourth down and 2, Petersen called for a punt at the UCLA 47-yard line.

A punt usually is the way to go on fourth-and-2 in the second quarter, except the numbers on the scoreboard — UCLA 28, UW 10 — suggested it wasn’t the most aggressive way of getting back in the game.

The sequence underscored a messy performance all around for the Huskies. Quarterback Cyler Miles had scrambled for a 12-yard gain on third down, slip-sliding just short of the first-down chain. That set up the fourth-and-2 and a no-brainer strategic choice: Put the ball in the hands of junior tailback Shaq Thompson.

As he did last week at Colorado, the converted linebacker was in position to showcase his superior running skills against the Bruins. But instead of relying on a steady dose of Thompson to keep the UCLA offense off the field, the Huskies used Thompson in increments that were maddeningly inconsistent. He got only 16 carries — eight in each half — while participating in some snaps on defense.

Thompson’s versatility is admirable, but Washington’s best chance of winning Saturday was predicated on making him a dynamic play-action component for Miles. Thompson ended up gaining 100 yards, and had the Huskies called his number a few more times, he could have had 150.

On the other hand, when the defense is surrendering 31 points before halftime, offensive playcalling might be the least of a team’s concerns.

Minimal pressure was put on Hundley, who had all day to throw. And when darkness engulfed Husky Stadium after the 4 p.m. kickoff, Hundley had all night to throw.

“The first half was extraordinarily disappointing,” said Petersen, whose team got off to a sluggish start for the second consecutive week. “UCLA is good and they brought their ‘A’ game and we certainly did not play hard. Once we got to be embarrassed there a little bit, we went to the locker room and adjusted a little bit and started doing a few things.

“We have a mix of new guys and guys who have played and we need to get everyone up to speed as fast as possible. We have to compete harder all the time. I thought we did a good job in the second half, but we have to do a better job in that first half. It’s a four quarter game.”

Football also is a game, at the college level, played by teenagers and young adults. The dismissal of Peters, however justified, did more than deprive the secondary of its only experienced cover man.

Kicking Peters off the team for several insubordinate incidents with the new coaching staff made for a rocky week on Montlake, and might partially explain the Huskies’ indifferent effort in the first half.

As Petersen put it: “This game’s so hard, and there’s enough drama in these kids’ lives anyway. This is something that doesn’t help. It’s a tough adjustment, and like I said the other day, those aren’t just words. They really are hard on everybody.

“So we’ve got to be strong and move forward. We’ve got to compete, got to play. We like to play the game and we’re gonna have fun with this thing — you can’t make it life or death, or it will turn into not a lot of fun.”

If Chris Petersen wants his players to have fun with football, he might think about sparing them the headache of watching Saturday’s debacle in the film room.