Will Starting from Scratch Help Chris Petersen in Year 2 at Washington?


Chris Petersen inherited the most talented roster of his coaching career in his debut season at Washington, and finished with his worst record ever at 8-6.

Mega-talents Hau’oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton and Shaq Thompson are bound for the NFL draft, along with cornerback Marcus Peters (dismissed midway through the season). The Huskies lose another 10 starters from the 2014 roster, making Washington the least experienced team in the Pac-12.

Further compounding the Huskies’ roster issues is the voluntarily leave quarterback Cyler Miles took in February. Although Miles struggled mightily in 2014, regressing from his impressive play as Keith Price’s fill-in the year prior, he was still the most promising playmaker Washington had on its carousel of quarterbacks.

If Chris Petersen’s first year away from Boise State was trying, logic dictates Year 2 — which Washington began this week with the opening of its spring practices — should be downright abysmal.

Good thing Chris Petersen’s success has never been contingent on logic.

Petersen won 10-plus games each of his first seven seasons at Boise State with considerably less talent than he took over from Washington predecessor and master recruiter Steve Sarkisian. Sure, the Broncos were typically more talented than their WAC and Mountain West counterparts, which comprised the bulk of their many double-digit-win seasons.

But Boise State became a nationally recognized program — and Petersen emerged as one of college football’s hottest coaching prospects — on wins that defied star-rating logic. The 2007 Fiesta Bowl defeat of Oklahoma remains one of the sport’s most replayed moments almost a decade later, but by the end of Petersen’s eight-year run on the Smurf Turf, unexpected upsets because Boise State’s norm.

In 2009, the Broncos beat Pac-10 champion Oregon. They repeated the feat in 2010 against the eventual ACC champion, Virginia Tech. The next year’s victim was the SEC East’s representative in the 2011 conference title game, Georgia.

Below is how Boise State stacked up in the talent department against each of those teams, based on the five recruiting classes that made up their respective classes at the time of playing one another.

Team 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
BOISE STATE 64 70 68 89 72 82 53
Oregon 28 49 11 19 32
Virginia Tech 32 29 18 23 23
Georgia 9 7 6 15 5

Given the vast talent disparity in those marquee wins, it suggests Petersen faced a considerable adjustment with a Washington lineup that included a Top 10 class (2012). That doesn’t mean the Huskies are going to start operating with a roster more comparable to a Mountain West team: Petersen’s first two recruiting classes at Washington were ranked No. 36 and No. 30.

However, an almost entirely rebuilt starting lineup means Petersen has more leeway to mold the Huskies per his vision, presumably with the workmanlike style and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that buoyed Boise State. Given his track record employing that philosophy against more talented opponents,

Of course, there’s never been any doubt Chris Petersen can beat power opponents in one-off matchups. The question lingering over his long-awaited jump to a Power Five league was how he’d fare seeing such competition on a weekly basis.

The answer was not well; at least, not initially. Washington finished below .500 in the Pac-12 and failed to beat a conference opponent with a winning record (Cal 5-7; Oregon State 5-7; Washington State 3-9; Colorado 2-10).

In fairness to Petersen, Washington suffered some near-misses, including an improbable 27-26 defeat at Arizona in mid-November.

But the Huskies also weren’t as close as the final score indicated in a few of their losses, specifically home defeats vs. Arizona State and UCLA, and the Cactus Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

Furthermore, that confounding decision at Arizona was made all the more perplexing given Washington lost largely due to Chris Petersen’s own decision making. The call to rush with running back Deontae Cooper rather than take a knee suggested Petersen, renowned for his in-game strategy, was perhaps shaken and pressing.

That decision perhaps crystallized Petersen’s first Pac-12 season: Washington was finally breaking out in the run game with someone who didn’t play running back, as Dwayne Washington rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns. A marquee road win over a ranked opponent was imminent, yet the magic of unconventional late-game play-calling that defined Boise State had the opposite effect on the Huskies.

The whole tenor for Chris Petersen’s second season in Seattle will be set immediately. The Huskies open 2015 with their new-look lineup and another year of familiarity with Petersen’s philosophy, just in time to travel to…Boise State.

Former Chris Petersen assistant Bryan Harsin kept alive the tradition of upset his predecessor instilled, leading the Broncos past Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Matchups with power-conference opponents are always big games for Boise State, but Sept. 4 is arguably even bigger for Washington.