All but one year of Washington coach Chris Petersen’s 31 on the sidelines have been spent in the West. And yet, Saturday’s matchup pitting his No. 10-ranked Huskies against UCLA marks Petersen’s first game coached at Rose Bowl Stadium.
“I love going to all different venues, all over the country,” Petersen said. “That’s part of the pageantry of college football.”
With its majestic, San Gabriel Mountains backdrop, and decades of history, the Rose Bowl plays its own special part in that pageantry. Petersen has never been part of the Rose Bowl legacy, despite coaching four teams in Bowl Championship Series and New Year’s Six games — two at Boise State, two at Washington — and twice meeting UCLA head-to-head.
But if the Huskies (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12 Conference) continue on their current trajectory and meet preseason expectations, they will be guaranteed no worse than a return trip to Pasadena come postseason.
Washington embarks on its first trip there since November 2013 — three weeks before Petersen was introduced as head coach to replacing the exiting Steve Sarkisian — fresh off what the coach called “probably our best” performance of the season. A 35-7 rout of BYU marked Washington’s fourth straight win since a 21-16 loss Week 1 against No. 8 Auburn, and was the Huskies’ strongest offensive effort of the season.
Running backs Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed combined for 167 yards rushing, and quarterback Jake Browning — who threw four interceptions the first three games — went 23-of-25 for 277 yards with no turnovers.
“Everybody expects everything to be perfect in the beginning of the season,” said center Nick Harris in the postgame press conference. “But all that stuff takes time.”
Time can be a precious commodity in college football, and UCLA (0-4, 0-1) does not have much of it to end the program’s worst start since 1971. The Bruins surrendered 24 unanswered points in their Pac-12 opener last Friday at Colorado, dropping to 0-4 and at risk of falling to 0-5 for the first time since 1943.
The 1943 Bruins opened 0-7 before their 19-7 defeat of Saint Mary’s.
Whether it’s the bevy of injuries, with notable names such as linebackers Josh Woods and Jaelan Phillips, or the youth most evident in true freshman starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA has struggled in all phases on its way to a historically slow start in coach Chip Kelly’s first year.
“We’re not into excuses,” Kelly said. “We have to get better. We have to stay away from the self-inflicted: the penalties; executing what we need to execute; our communication.”
The Bruins committed eight penalties for 66 yards at Colorado, right on line with their season average for penalty yardage accrued. The offense — ranked among the worst in the Power Five conferences for rushing, passing and points scored — has not had the same leading rusher in any two of its four games.
Improvements are evident: Kelly noted running back Joshua Kelley “earning” his way into a more place in the lineup last week, and delivering with 124 rushing yards. Measurable results are more difficult to come by, however, particularly with the nation’s stingiest scoring defense coming to town.
“The plan is to win right away,” Petersen said of new coaching regimes taking over programs. “I don’t think anyone goes in saying it’s going to take years to get that done. We don’t have years (in the coaching profession). It takes longer than we all want it to.”
For Washington, the breakout season came in Petersen’s third. The Huskies went 12-1 through the regular season and Pac-12 Championship Game, landing a berth in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl — hence no Rose Bowl for Petersen’s conference champions.
The Huskies finished 8-6 and 7-6 in Petersen’s first two seasons — well off the 2016 team’s championship-contending pace, but a much stronger start than UCLA is enduring in Kelly’s first year at the helm.
“Once we clean up penalty mistakes and the mental mistakes, the little things, it’ll get there,” said Thompson-Robinson following the loss at Colorado. “We all believe in the process and we all believe in coach Kelly.”