Huskies still have steps to take in joining national elite
By TIM BOOTH
SEATTLE (AP) In four seasons, Chris Petersen has completely remodeled Washington, changed the culture of the program, won a conference title, twice played in a New Year's Six bowl game, and once played in the College Football Playoff.
It's an impressive resume in a short span. But there still another step for the Huskies in order to truly be part of the national elite.
"There's just been a lot of guys that have moved the needle forward in this program," Petersen said. "It's not just about like executing on the field in my opinion. It's what is it like on a day-to-day basis, what is the culture like, what is the expectations in the locker room, how do we work out, what's the standard, what's the level of excellence there. And I think it's different. And I think that these guys understand what it's going to take. It's very hard to stay and win 10 games and try to get to the playoffs and all that. We know that."
The next step for Washington was reinforced in its 35-28 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl to close out the 2017 season. The Huskies finished 10-3, their second straight 10-win season, yet it was an unfulfilling campaign. No division title. No conference title game appearance. No bowl game victory. Winning the Apple Cup will be the biggest tangible accomplishment the Huskies achieved in 2017.
Still, 10 wins is not to be discarded. There was no significant backslide for the Huskies a year after stunning most and appearing in the playoff. And there's enough returning talent that 2018 should be another season of lofty expectations that are quickly becoming the norm under Petersen.
Washington will face major questions about replacing Pac-12 defensive player of the year Vita Vea, do-everything linebacker Keishawn Bierria, and star wide receiver/punt returner Dante Pettis. But quarterback Jake Browning will be back and possibly running back Myles Gaskin, and the defense simply seems to reload, not rebuild, at this point.
"I think anytime you go into the offseason you've got to find something to build off," Browning said. "Last year it was Alabama and the year before that it was winning the Heart of Dallas Bowl. You always got to find something to build off of."
Here's what else to watch as the Huskies head into the offseason after a second straight bowl game loss:
JAKE'S JUMP: Browning and all of Washington's offense took a step back from his explosive sophomore season. Browning finished with 2,719 yards passing, 16 TDs and threw just five interceptions. But the big plays that defined Washington's offense in 2016 when Browning threw 43 touchdowns were gone. Browning also appeared more flustered and hesitant, sometimes holding the ball too long and not allowing receivers to make a play.
Browning will be a rare four-year starter when 2018 begins, and the Huskies would like to see more of the form from his sophomore year return.
"I think that all kind of starts with me, and I got to make sure that we get rolling a little bit quicker and stuff like that, and don't get behind like that and get caught on our heels," Browning said.
REPLACING PETTIS: One of the big position groups to watch going into next season will be wide receiver. The Huskies lose Pettis, but will return Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and get Chico McClatcher back from injury that cost him most of the 2017 season. The youngsters to watch will be Ty Jones and incoming freshman Marquis Spiker, who broke the California state record for TD catches.
Another huge return will be tight end Hunter Bryant, who had 22 receptions before getting hurt in late October.
FUTURE DECISION: Washington knows Vea is bound for the NFL. It got some clarity after the Fiesta Bowl when defensive tackle Greg Gaines told The Seattle Times he intended to come back for his senior season.
That leaves Gaskin as the biggest remaining question about possible early entrants. Gaskin has rushed for more than 4,000 yards and had 24 total TDs this season. It's a big load Gaskin has taken in his time with the Huskies, rushing for at least 1,300 yards in three straight seasons.
TOUGH OPENER: There will be fewer complaints about Washington's non-conference schedule in 2018 with what the Huskies face to open the season. Washington will play Auburn on Sept. 1 in the Chik-fil-A Kickoff game in Atlanta. It will be a huge early test for the Huskies to see if they are prepared to be in the national conversation right from the outset. It's also the beginning of 10 straight games the Huskies will play before finally getting their bye in early November next season.
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Updated December 31, 2017