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The Blueprint for Beating Bama

How Washington can upset the seemingly unbeatable Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Say this for the Washington Huskies: At the very least, in their darkest of cold December nights in the Pacific Northwest, amid preview after preview lauding their opponent’s inevitable victory, they still have Chris Petersen on their side.

Because if a team needs what appears to be a college football miracle, it doesn’t hurt to have the coach who pulled one off a decade ago, beating mighty Oklahoma with a Statue of Liberty play. Don’t misread the challenge facing the Huskies this weekend; the consensus opinion is that Washington needs to “be perfect” to have even a chance. Alabama is favored by more than two touchdowns in Saturday’s Peach Bowl playoff semifinal, and even analysts tasked with making a case for the Huskies have wound up spending their time reciting reasons the Crimson Tide will win.

In Washington’s favor is a talented roster full of future NFL players and the fifth-best-rated quarterback in the country, plus Petersen on the sideline. While Nick Saban is the sport’s best combination of in-game coach and recruiter, he has lost three top-tier bowl games in the last decade with Alabama favored by more than a touchdown; give Petersen time to prepare, meanwhile, and it’s a given that his team will exceed expectations.

It’s not just that famous Fiesta Bowl win he earned while coaching Boise State. Petersen’s Broncos also held Oregon to eight points (by far the Ducks’ lowest total in the Kelly-Helfrich era) in the 2009 season opener better remembered for LeGarrette Blount’s postgame punch. In that season’s Fiesta Bowl, they knocked off Andy Dalton’s undefeated TCU squad. The next two years, they beat eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech and blew out Georgia in season openers.

Petersen will have his team prepared to take on college football’s final boss, and his staff will have a game plan geared to produce the season’s most impactful upset. We don’t have access to Husky Stadium’s film room, but we can make an educated guess at what that will look like. Based on three months of data and what we know about the key matchups at play, here is Washington’s blueprint to beating Bama.

On Offense

Alabama’s defensive dominance needs no introduction. Much like the famous line from (probably not) Hemingway, the statistic “All of November, no touchdowns allowed” both tells a complete story in just six words and makes the reader weep for humanity’s futile existence.

Call it the Peach Bowl Paradox: Alabama doesn’t allow points, yet Washington will need to score a healthy share of them to have a chance at the victory. Since Saban’s second season in Tuscaloosa — when Bama entered its latest dynastic epoch — the Tide are 101–1 when holding opponents to 22 points or fewer but have a losing record when giving up 23 or more.

One place the Huskies probably shouldn’t look is the ground game, but that’s not a reflection on them. Running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman have excelled this year, combining for 2,175 yards on 6.5 yards a pop; Gaskin is the moves-the-chains feature back, while Coleman has the fifth-highest yards-per-carry average in the country (min. 100 rushes). But running on Alabama is a quixotic endeavor. The nation’s best run defense — by far — is coming off a game in which it held Florida to precisely zero rushing yards. Only once all season has an opposing rusher managed even 60 yards individually.

The rushing clash manifests in another battle of bests: While Washington fields the nation’s most efficient offense, Bama boasts the most efficient defense, with its opponents staying “on schedule” to pick up first downs on just 27.5 percent of plays (Michigan, at 29.4 percent, is the only other team below 30).

With consistent rushing gains — and the second-and-4s and third-and-2s they often yield — likely missing from the Huskies’ arsenal, their most obvious route to points is big plays, which are almost a necessity against Alabama. The Tide have allowed 30 scoring drives this year, and in 26 of them, the opposing offense either started the drive in Alabama territory or gained at least 20 yards in a single play — so Washington needs to flip field position via return yards and turnovers (we’ll get there in the next section) or pick up lots of yards all at once.

Big plays also happen to be the overlap between UW’s offensive strengths and Bama’s (relative) defensive weaknesses. Washington quarterback Jake Browning likes throwing the ball deep — per Pro Football Focus, one-fifth of his throws this year have gone at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage — and for good reason: He has been on target with 50 percent of those deep throws, fourth-best among Power Five quarterbacks.

Alabama, meanwhile, is vulnerable downfield. The Tide surrendered 43 points to Ole Miss in September, for instance, in part because they allowed Chad Kelly to complete six of nine deep attempts. As PFF points out, cornerback Marlon Humphrey is somewhat emblematic of the entire Alabama defense in this area: While he doesn’t allow many catches (58 over the last two years), he gives up bunches of yards when he does (17.5 per catch in that span).

In John Ross, Dante Pettis, and Chico McClatcher, Washington has three speedy receivers who can stretch defenses. Ross is the standout from the group, as he seems like a shoo-in to score every time he touches the ball, whether that involves running past defenders or just circling around them like he’s using a Tecmo Bowl cheat code. The most surprising thing about his season is that he has only 17 receiving touchdowns (tied for third nationally).

While second-team All-American Ross gets all the leading man hype, Pettis has been every bit the worthy sidekick. The 6-foot-1 junior had just two career receiving touchdowns entering this season, but he’s added 14 more on just 50 catches in 2016; no other Power Five receiver since at least 2000 has produced so many scores on so few receptions in a single year. Pettis is also a punt-return threat — five career touchdowns — and a trick-play connoisseur, having completed two passes for a total of 89 yards and a touchdown this year.

That last bit is of extra concern for Alabama, where Saban has reportedly instructed his assistants to study years of Petersen game film due to the Washington coach’s penchant for trickery. (Even if, as Colorado learned earlier this month in the Pac-12 title game, sometimes that extra preparation goes for naught.) A well-timed Pettis pass or a layered fake using the wideout’s arm as a ruse — with the Tide now expecting him to throw — could give UW an extra boost against an aggressive defense.

Beyond highlight plays, Washington needs to take maximal advantage of scoring opportunities when they arise and avoid settling for field goals. Since struggling in its opening game against Rutgers, the offense has scored on 53 of 54 red zone appearances, with 42 touchdowns, and in his college career, Browning has tossed 35 scores compared with zero interceptions in the red zone. Alabama’s defense rarely permits opponents to even reach that area of the field, of course, but if UW gets there, it has the tools to translate those opportunities into seven points.

The elephant in the Huskies locker room is whether they can protect Browning well enough to allow for those rainbow deep balls and open up space in the red zone. Washington struggles to protect its quarterback in obvious passing situations (110th nationally in opponent-adjusted sack rate on passing downs), which could prove especially problematic against a defense that thrives on keeping opponents off schedule.

No team accumulated more sack yardage this season than Alabama, which knocked opposing offenses back a whopping 28 yards per game with quarterback takedowns. Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and 291-pound flying squirrel Jonathan Allen all tallied at least eight sacks.

Washington’s chances on offense might come down to which Browning shows up: the one who capably withstood pressure all season (10 touchdowns and just two interceptions and the fourth-best rating among Power Five passers against pressure) or the one who looked like a scared JV player in his two biggest games. Against USC and Colorado, Browning completed just 43 percent of his passes for 6.3 yards per attempt (versus 67.2 and 9.9, respectively, in his other games); in the Colorado contest in particular, he missed open receivers and overthrew targets all over the field. Suffice it to say that Washington can’t beat Alabama with its leader playing at that level.

Thankfully for Washington, the Huskies defense had his back in the Colorado game. Speaking of …

On Defense

There might not be a simple way to stymy Alabama’s offense. The Tide have scored 30 or more points against every team other than LSU, and “play defense as well as LSU” isn’t much in the way of advice. Like Alabama’s defense, its running game is the stuff of myth at this point, and the program has spawned a trio of talented backs this year, each of whom has broken the 100-yard mark in a game. It also has a new element in 2016, with quarterback Jalen Hurts already enjoying the most career rushing yards for any Saban QB.

Hurts is both the offense’s greatest hope for the future and its greatest potential weakness in this playoff. He has produced nearly identical passing numbers to what then-senior Jake Coker managed en route to winning the title last season — except Hurts is a true freshman who also ran for 841 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Hurts has shown flashes of preternatural brilliance this year, and he should develop into a top Heisman contender as he matures in Tuscaloosa. Among freshman QBs, only USC’s Sam Darnold threw more touchdown passes, and only Darnold and Oregon’s Justin Herbert had a better passer rating. But Hurts is still a first-year starter, and that means he’s still prone to freshman mistakes under pressure.

Here’s a scary-looking split from Pro Football Focus. Hurts has completed 74.6 percent of his passes with a 20:4 TD:INT ratio when throwing from a clean pocket, but those numbers have collapsed to a 30.6 completion percentage, two touchdowns, and five interceptions against pressure. His passer rating drops from ninth-best in the country with no pressure to second-worst with.

Against LSU, Hurts completed just one of six passes against pressure, for negative yardage. Versus Texas A&M, he went 0-for-4 with two interceptions and was sacked three times.

Despite what playing in the SEC might suggest, Hurts actually hasn’t had to face that many intrusions upon his pocket. Only four of his opponents (LSU, A&M, Florida, and Tennessee) rank better than 50th nationally in opponent-adjusted sack rate this season, and Hurts has played significantly worse against those four teams than he has against the rest of his schedule. He didn’t post a single NCAA-calculated passer rating above 130 in any of those four contests; in his nine other games, he dipped below that number only once.

His stat line against the four sack-happy teams was basically Jacob Eason’s; his stat line in the other nine games was basically Deshaun Watson’s without the interceptions.

Washington profiles well to take advantage of Hurts’s vulnerabilities. The Huskies rank fifth in opponent-adjusted sack rate, near the likes of Clemson’s (fourth) and, well, Alabama’s (seventh) fearsome defensive lines. They succeed on a team level — no individual player has more than six sacks, but seven players have at least three.

Pressuring Hurts could generate more than just sacks. The Huskies have forced 33 turnovers this year, the most in the FBS, and pried multiple takeaways from every opponent except Utah. Most recently, they harassed Colorado’s Sefo Liufau into throwing three interceptions on just 13 passes in the Pac-12 title bout; prior to that game, Liufau had thrown just three interceptions on 277 pass attempts this year.

They might find willing participants in the Tide, whose 19 turnovers this year placed them in the back half of the FBS. Alabama placing below the median in any statistic is noteworthy; that it does so in an area in which Washington is the very best in the country should give the Huskies hope.

UW’s secondary has no weak links, with every member capable of stealing an errant Hurts pass. Ringer Letterman (also, actual consensus All-American) Budda Baker is an all-around menace with the ability to cover and rush the quarterback with equal proficiency, and starting corners Sidney Jones (first-team All-Pac 12) and Kevin King (honorable mention) have both impressed. Most recently, safety Taylor Rapp burst onto the national scene with a two-pick, MVP performance in the conference title game, just days after being named the Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year.

Washington also boasts an excellent, if underrated, rush defense, anchored by first team All-Pac-12 honoree Elijah Qualls at defensive tackle. Completely nullifying Alabama’s run game (5.7 yards per carry, eighth nationally) would be a difficult ask, but if the Huskies could slow the initial attacks and force the Tide into long third downs, they could take advantage: Four of Hurts’s nine interceptions this year came on third-and-10-or-more, even though throws in that situation comprised just 9 percent of his total attempts.

Injuries to linebackers Joe Mathis and Azeem Victor, the team’s leading tackler, could sap Washington of some of its run-D stinginess. It’s also concerning for the Huskies that they allowed Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins to run for 176 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime win in September given Hurts’s mobility, which he’s relied on more when facing stout defenses (an extra 30 rushing yards per game against the four sack-happy opponents versus the other nine).

Yet Washington’s defense still matches up against Alabama’s offense. The Tide will have to maintain long drives to score — UW has given up only 14 plays of 30-plus yards all season, second in the FBS — and the Huskies should have opportunities to pressure Hurts into mistakes and force dangerous third-and-long situations. It’s not much, perhaps, but it’s a glimmer of hope, and hope is the best of things.

Well, besides a trip to the national title game. That’s a better thing. And if the Huskies follow this blueprint, they’ll get that, too.

Washington 23, Alabama 17. Roll Tide.