ATLANTA — In the end, it was a day of missed opportunities.
An almost interception. An offensive drive stalled by a heartbreaking fumble. A fumble recovery that Washington had, then let slip through its grasp.
The Peach Bowl semifinal in Atlanta on Saturday afternoon was closer than the 24–7 final score implied. But there are no moral victories at this point in the season, and so Alabama rolls into Tampa seeking its fifth national championship in eight years because Washington just couldn’t capitalize.
Yes, the Crimson Tide’s defense is brilliant, big and tough and fast and everything else you’ve read about. But the Huskies’ defense can play a little bit too, and for long stretches Saturday, it stuffed the Tide’s offense, forcing eight Alabama punts. And that, coupled with a young offense that had a lot of “almosts” itself, is why Washington can get back to the College Football Playoff and win a title of its own someday soon.
Alabama’s run won’t last forever. Sports are cyclical, and at some point Nick Saban, maybe the greatest college football coach of all time, will retire. When he does step down—heck, maybe when he’s still on the throne in Tuscaloosa—another giant has the chance to emerge.
Washington can be that team. Asked after the game how a trip here, to the college football promised land, can change a team going forward, Huskies coach Chris Petersen was thoughtful.
“They’ve seen it,” he said. “They’ve felt it. They’ve tasted it a little bit.”
A taste, but not the full meal. Like when Budda Baker came tantalizingly close to snagging an interception on Alabama’s first offensive play of the game, as Jalen Hurts lofted a pass toward O.J. Howard that Baker should have grabbed. “First play of the game, you’re happy, you’re excited and a lot of people don’t take shots the first play,” Baker said. “Just missed it.” Or like when Washington, trailing 17–7 early in the second half and desperate for a jolt of momentum, forced Hurts to fumble and Psalm Wooching had the ball, then didn’t, and Alabama’s Jonah Williams fell on it to maintain possession.
None of those plays went Washington’s way. And yet the Huskies managed to keep it a game for most of the afternoon because of a defense that mostly kept Hurts (7 of 14 for 57 yards passing and 19 carries for 50 yards) in check. Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough, ravaged by injuries much of his career, finished with 180 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. He dealt Washington the final crushing blowing, slipping out of five tacklers’ hands on his way to a 68-yard scoring run with 11:56 to play.
In the aftermath of a frustrating defeat—there’s nothing like losing when you know you didn’t play up to your potential—the Huskies can find positives.
The Huskies have almost every advantage in the college football book, save for a natural recruiting base (that’s solved by flying two states south, and recruiting players out of California). Their sparkling new stadium recalls the early 90s, when Washington was the best show in town. Their other facilities can go up against any other program in college football, and they’ve got a thriving city ready and waiting to support them. They’ve got a coach who many consider one of the brightest in the game, and he’s likely at Washington for the long haul, having turned down other big-time jobs when he was at Boise State. But most importantly for the short run, they’ve got a lot of returning players who can get back to this stage.
Remember, we’re not that far removed—eight seasons, to be exact—from Washington’s disastrous 0–12 campaign. That Petersen, in just his third year, coached the Huskies to this point is remarkable (though it’s worth mentioning that he got some help with Oregon’s collapse this year). In a depressed locker room after the game, Petersen cut to the point.
“He’s not a big speech guy,” said quarterback Jake Browning, who finished Saturday completing 20 of 38 passes for 150 yards with one touchdown. “He thanked the seniors, and told us young guys, ‘Be ready to go. This is the new standard. Alabama is the type of program we want to have at Washington, so be ready for the off-season.’”
Browning finished the season with 43 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions (two in Saturday’s game, which makes him seem less efficient than he actually was the rest of 2016). He got some Heisman love in October and November He will be back. So will freshman safety Taylor Rapp (52 total tackles, a team-leading four interceptions), the Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year and 2016 Pac-12 title game defensive MVP. Three of Washington’s starting offensive linemen should return. At least three members of its stout defensive line, including sophomore Vita Vea, a beast of a defensive end, should be suited up again next season, too. Junior defensive tackle Elijah Qualls, who could leave early for the NFL, said how good the Huskies could be in 2017 will “absolutely be a factor” in his decision the next few weeks.
The Huskies will likely lose stars like safety Baker, cornerback Sidney Jones and receiver John Ross. But maybe, after only getting a taste, those underclassmen will surprise everyone and decide they want to be in a Huskies locker room again, too.
Immediately after the loss, Petersen started stressing that even if Washington delivered a year early—many believed the Huskies would make some noise this year but truly arrive in 2017—there is no way they can count on being in the same position next year. As Alabama knows well, staying at the top is a lot harder getting there once.
“I think our job as coaches will be to take them back to what got us here,” Petersen said. “It's not like when we go back to work, we're the same team. It's a balance between knowing that they can do some special things [and] going back to our humble roots of starting over.”
All week, Washington players answered questions about Alabama’s dominance, if the Tide were the greatest ever, if they were disappointed with the matchup given they were two-touchdown underdogs and other borderline insulting inquiries. The tenor of the questions was basically, do you really think you belong here?
“I felt like we belonged the whole time,” Browning said. “My mindset hasn’t changed at all.”
Washington proved that Saturday, mostly with its defense. But in case there are any doubters left, Browning and Rapp and Vea and many of their talented teammates will have next year, and beyond, to show it again.