Sega Genesis. Crystal Pepsi. Washington football?
Thanks to Jimmy Fallon, BuzzFeed and other viral content factories, reminiscing on trends of the ’90s is currently en vogue — or En Vogue, as it were.
College football’s poised to get in on the act in 2016. The Washington Huskies could be on the verge of a comeback of Crystal Pepsi proportions, with a taste that invokes memories of Napoleon Kaufman, Steve Emtman and “The Dogfather,” the late Don James.
Washington football’s new Dogfather, Chris Petersen, is a pedestrian 15-12 in two seasons with the Huskies. The 2015 Dawgs needed to win their regular-season finale just to quality for the postseason, and finished on the right side of .500 with a win over Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Given Petersen’s predecessor Steve Sarkisian earned the derisive nickname “Seven-Win Sark” for repeated 7-6 finishes, one could understandable mistake 2015 for more of the same from this decade than a start of a ’90s comeback.
But like the goateed member of a ’90s boy band, look beyond the seemingly rough exterior. Washington’s win total says less about the 2015 Huskies than how they won — as well as how they lost.
The wins included three late-season blowouts of quality opponents. Washington smashed Arizona on Halloween night like a pumpkin, 45-3, took advantage of a Luke Falk-less Washington State to win the Apple Cup, 45-10, and held Southern Miss at arm’s length in a 44-31 bowl victory.
That’s three of the nation’s most explosive offense, held to a combined 44 points, less than Washington’s average over that three-game stretch. The two games in Husky Stadium were particularly lopsided, as the venue by Montlake morphed back into the house of horrors it had been throughout the ’90s.
On the 2015 season, the Huskies limited opponents to 18.8 points per game. It wasn’t exactly the 1991 Washington defense, when All-American tackle Steve Emtman paced the Huskies to a 9.6-point per game yield, but 2015 laid the foundation for Washington’s 2016 defense to be truly special.
Up and down the roster on the defensive end are youngsters who will seasoned veterans came next autumn. Leading tackler Azeem Victor? Sophomore. Interceptions leader Sidney Jones? Sophomore. Do-everything safety Budda Baker? Sophomore. Athletic linebacker Kieshawn Bierria? Sophomore.
That’s a whole lot of talent coming up through Petersen’s vision of the program, under the guidance of defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.
Petersen’s Boise State teams were celebrated for offensive gadgetry, not truly gaining national recognition until a hook-and-lateral and Statue of Liberty won the Broncos the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. However, throughout Petersen’s tenure on the Smurf Turf, Boise State boasted some of the nation’s most imposing defenses.
Washington’s signature defensive performance arguably came in a 17-12 win at USC, against Sarkisian and a number of former Husky staffers.
Kwiatkowski’s aggressive strategy had USC quarterback Cody Kessler running for his life, and the Trojans completely stymied.
“We focus on weaknesses,” linebacker Travis Feeney told me following that win. Feeney, a holdover from the Sarkisian era, completed his eligibility this season, but the mentality he described will buoy the Huskies defense into 2016 and beyond.
“Guys are so much more aggressive than before,” he said. “We were just so well prepared.”
Defensive prep is a huge portion to a winning equation in the Pac-12. Stanford’s discovered a formula for winning the conference, building off defense and allowing the offense to fall into place. Why not Washington?
To contend for the program’s first Rose Bowl since the 2000 season, however, Washington will have to start stronger on the offensive end.
The Husky offense featured youth comparable to its defense, which showed in several of Washington’s losses. The Huskies failed to reach 20 points in three defeats, and hit exactly 20 in a fourth. The 20 came against Oregon, the Pac-12’s standard-bearer for much of the last six years and Washington’s most bitter rival. The Ducks also just happen to own a winning streak against the Huskies dating back to 2004.
The 26-20 final equaled the closest Oregon margin of victory in the streak — every other game was decided by double-digits — but Washington had numerous missed opportunities.
“Untimely penalties, not converting third downs when we really should be able to convert, those types of things,” Petersen said via GoHuskies.com.
In summary: “We were just a little too inconsistent.”
The same could be said of any of the Huskies’ six losses, whether seeing a double-digit-point lead evaporate at Arizona State, failing to capitalize on stout defensive efforts against Boise State and Oregon, or digging an early, insurmountable hole at Stanford.
Consistency comes, in part, from experience. Like the standout defense, Washington’s 2016 offense won’t be lacking for experience. Quarterback Jake Browning fell under the radar as the conference’s “other” true freshman starter, certainly not garnering the attention of UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
However, Browning finished with somewhat comparable numbers, throwing for 16 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and completing 63 percent of his attempts for 2,955 yards. Rosen finished the season with 3,670 on 60 percent completions and 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Browning outrushed Rosen, 204 yards to 15.
Browning’s season-long evolution fueled Washington’s dramatic turnaround in the back-half of the schedule. The Huskies averaged 38.3 points per game in their final six, and along the way, running back Myles Gaskin broke out as a star. His 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns garnered Gaskin FWAA Freshman All-America recognition.
With Browning and Gaskin growing into stardom, wide receivers Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius capable of big things, and an improving line, the Washington offense is on the right trajectory. Meanwhile, the positive momentum is carrying over into recruiting.
Four-star cornerback Byron Murphy spurned hometown Arizona State on Thursday, pledging his commitment to the Huskies. He joins a 2016 recruiting class featuring 4-star linebackers Camilo Eifer and Brandon Wellington, 4-star running back Sean McGrew and 4-star cornerback Isaiah Gilchrist.
The generation of Dawgs poised to return Washington football to its heyday were born well after the 1991 national championship or the Whammy in Miami. Nevertheless, they’ll grow up quickly in the fall. Washington’s championship mettle will be tested early, with a three-game stretch sending the Huskies to Arizona and Oregon book-ending a home date with Stanford.
Road trips to Utah and Cal in consecutive weeks loom. The Pac-12 schedule did Washington no favors. However, if the Huskies can navigate those treacherous waters with the deftness of Ecco The Dolphin, they’ll have reason to pop Crystal Pepsi bottles in the locker room, in lieu of champagne.
’90s kids know what I mean.