America came to know Chris Petersen a decade ago through his use of gimmicks. If there’s anything we liked more than the hook-and-ladder he called for Boise State to tie Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, it was the Statue of Liberty two-point conversion he designed to win it. He put Boise on the map, as more than the capital of Idaho. He loved it there, on his blue field, until it came time for him to leave it, for the emerald city of Seattle, where his fortunes have taken a turn for the fabulous.
Now in his third year as Washington’s coach, Petersen has the Huskies 8-0 and ranked No. 4 by The Associated Press. You hope that if this trend continues, the College Football Playoff selection committee will wise up and include Petersen’s team in its Final Four. The CFP rankmeisters overlooked Washington – tabbing the Huskies No. 5 – in its first foursome released this week, favoring Texas A&M, which lost a game this season by 19 points.
Petersen doesn’t seem too worried. His team still has four regular-season games to play, including Saturday night at Cal. If you’re a Honker or an Aggie or a Panther, this is the first of maybe two opportunities you’ll get this year to see your homie on the sideline in Northern California. Petersen, of course, grew up on the west bank of the Feather River and starred at quarterback for Yuba City High School before going to UC Davis, with a stop at Sacramento City College in between. If Washington wins the Pacific-12 Conference North title, he’ll return with the Huskies to these parts Dec. 2 to play in the conference championship game at Levi’s Stadium.
Right now, that game might as well be played in another universe, it’s so far out of Petersen’s mind – as is the silliness of the early CFP rankings.
“If you’re trying to win championships, it’s one (game) at a time,” Petersen said during this week’s Pac-12 coaches teleconference. “It’s not talking about a championship a month out.”
At Boise State, it was the gimmick play that made Petersen internationally famous. But the people in Idaho and the folks around Lake Washington know him better as a fundamentally terrific coach. In eight years, he directed the Broncos to a 92-12 record, two undefeated seasons, two major bowl victories and four AP top-10 finishes. Petersen attained this national prominence even though his recruiting classes registered between 56th and 96th in the country, according to the rankings compiled by Rivals.com, supposedly as good as any other practitioner of this imperfect art.
Washington nabbed Petersen before the 2014 season, and deep into his second year on the new job, it looked as if Petersen may have promoted out of his league. Entering last year’s Apple Cup game against Washington State, his teams had gone only 13-12. So what did they do up there? They extended his contract and goosed his pay to $4 million a year starting in 2018.
At the time of the extension, former Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, who has since split Seattle for the AD job at, of all places, Texas A&M, said Petersen “has demonstrated tremendous integrity and is building a program that Husky fans can be proud of, both on and off the field. This extension is well-deserved and we hope coach Petersen is a Husky for a long time to come.”
Petersen has not lost since, even though the Rivals ranking system suggests he has continued to fall short in recruiting, listing his three classes at 37th, 31st and 37th.
Maybe the lesson here is the college football world should stop paying so much attention to the recruiting class rankers. Moody’s they’re not. But come to think of it, Moody’s didn’t do so hot, either, in its assessment of subprime mortgages.
If Petersen has a recruiting problem, he seemingly isn’t all that enamored by the number of stars the analysts put next to a player’s name.
From Boise to Seattle, he has been more concerned with the character of the player wearing the uniform.
“It’s hard to find out,” Petersen said on the conference call. “We call ’em ‘OKGs’ – our kinda guys. They’re, simply put, really good, really good dudes – big-time players. And so there’s a lot into that, what that means to us, but that’s what our coaches have done for a long time in terms of our recruiting process. And for everybody, it’s always about getting the right fit for your style of offense or defense, and the culture that you want to have. I think a lot of times coaches just get hung up on the type of player somebody is, and that only gets us started.”
His OKG at quarterback – Jake Browning, the sophomore from Folsom High School – is responsible for Washington being the most efficient passing team in the country. Wide receiver John Ross is tied for No. 2 in the country in touchdown catches with 11 (he has 13 total TDs). Another OKG is receiver Dante Pettis, who has returned five punts for touchdowns in his career, including one last week that broke a tie late in Washington’s road win over Utah, the biggest for the Huskies this season.
Washington ranks second in the country in turnover margin at plus-13. The Huskies are fourth in scoring offense (46.1 points per game) and seventh in scoring defense (15.8 against).
But they are fifth in the CFP rankings, and for right now, it’s a gimmick that Petersen doesn’t really care about.