For eight minutes in Atlanta, the Washington football team held on to a one-point lead over the Auburn Tigers, threatening to live up to all of its preseason hype and make a huge program breakthrough—beat a Southeastern Conference team.
It was all just a tease.
The sixth-ranked Huskies were good, but not nearly as good as advertised, and fell behind late and lost 21-16 in their season opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday in Atlanta. A season that held the potential to be something special turns to more modest pursuits, such as settling for a conference title and regional superiority. Those are fine goals, just not the ultimate one.
There were too many shortcomings on both sides of the ball for Washington to remain in the national championship conversation.
“I’m frustrated we just didn’t start a little faster,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said.
They didn’t finish well enough either. Four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning once more couldn’t close the deal on a signature win, making crucial errors belying his experience. In particular, the senior’s inability to get rid of a third-quarter option pitch in a timely fashion at the Auburn 3 led to him getting rocked and the ball bouncing free into a defender’s arms, squandering a significant scoring opportunity. His day ended with opponents draped all over him, leading to a sack and on his final play an intentional grounding call.
Washington’s vaunted secondary likewise looked ordinary at times, with everyone but Taylor Rapp getting turned around and victimized by Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Huskies had no interceptions against a guy who completed 26 of 36 attempts for 273 yards and a score, and came up with a big completion practically every time he needed one. These guys in purple were supposed to be better than that.
The Huskies were on their heels for the first quarter and a half, dropping behind 12-3 to ninth-ranked Auburn. They finally settled down when Browning took his team to the Tigers 5 in a hurry right before the half ended, but the drive stalled and brought another field goal; he inexplicably tried to run it on third-and-goal, another unwise decision, though this one likely came from the pressbox. Browning stands to finish his career much like Cody Pickett, a previous UW quarterback with considerable talent and big numbers, but no truly memorable victories. He’s come up short against USC, Alabama, Penn State and now Auburn.
While Browning was sacked five times, his offensive line held up reasonably well, even with Jared Hilbers replacing the injured Trey Adams at left tackle and redshirt freshman Jaxson Kirkland starting for the first time at right guard. They proved physical against an aggressive defensive front.
The line helped senior Myles Gaskins become Washington’s all-time leading rusher when the running back broke free on a 25-yard gain in the third quarter to pass Napoleon Kaufman. Gaskins, who finished with 77 yards on 17 carries against Auburn, has run for 4,132 yards in his career, exceeding Kaufman’s 4,106.
Washington also had to be encouraged by its receiving corps, a somewhat new group of starters still feeling its way around the flats. Junior Aaron Fuller led the Huskies with seven catches for 135 yards, sophomore Ty Jones on occasion gave Auburn fits with his mix of 6-foot-4 height and speed, and junior Quinten Pounds came off the bench to make a highlight-reel touchdown catch with one hand.
Yet when it came down to it, Washington couldn’t beat an SEC team—its biggest program frustration for nearly three decades. The opportunity was there in Atlanta on Saturday to make that happen. Auburn was able to close it out, not the Huskies, but that’s what SEC teams do.
They believe every national championship game should pair up a couple of SEC entries, such as last year’s Alabama-Georgia finale. They're convinced every other conference is inferior. On this trip to the South, the Huskies, supposedly the best of the Pac-12, didn’t change anyone’s mind.
Below is a historical recap of SEC dominance over Washington. It’s not something the Husky super fan will appreciate. Read it and weep a little, especially when looking at the latest entry:
TALE OF UW-SEC TAPE:
1926 – Alabama 20, UW 19 – The Huskies blew a 12-0 Rose Bowl lead and lost on a missed extra point.
1974 – Texas A&M 28, UW 15 – Jim Owens’ last team couldn’t stop the Wishbone offense in Seattle.
1975 – at Alabama 52, UW 0 – Don James’ first team got thoroughly embarrassed in the Tuscaloosa heat.
1977 – Mississippi State 27, UW 16 – The Rose Bowl-bound Huskies gave up 322 Wishbone yards.
1978 – Alabama 20, UW 17 – Spider Gaines caught two deep throws for TDs but dropped a third for the upset.
1983 – at LSU 40, UW 14 – This one was over at halftime in Baton Rouge in a physical mismatch.
1986 – Alabama 28, UW 6 – In the Sun Bowl, the Huskies couldn’t handle the Crimson Tide speed.
1987 – at Texas A&M 29, UW 12 – The Huskies were the nation’s 10th-ranked team coming in and feeling whipped leaving town.
*1989 – UW 19, Texas A&M 6 – The Huskies used four field goals to upset the then-Southwest Conference Aggies, later an SEC team.
*1989 – UW 34, Florida 7 – At the Freedom Bowl, the Huskies notched their one true SEC win, holding Emmitt Smith to 17 yards rushing.
2009 – LSU 31, UW 23 – Jake Locker’s team was game with a first-possession score, but couldn't keep up with the visiting Tigers.
2012 – at LSU 41, UW 3 – Another Baton Rouge mismatch, with the Huskies held to 26 yards rushing.
2016 – Alabama 24, UW 7 – In the CFP semifinals and Peach Bowl in Atlanta, the Huskies hung in there for not quite a half.
2018 – Auburn 21, UW 16 – The Huskies coughed up the lead with 6:15 remaining in Atlanta and took a long flight home.
UW VS. SEC: 2-12