Familiar situation greets Chris Petersen as underdog Washington preps to face Alabama

1:07 | College Football
Peach Bowl: Is there any way Washington can top Alabama?
Tuesday December 13th, 2016

SEATTLE — Chris Petersen, Washington’s third-year coach and leader of this year’s College Football Playoff-bound squad, has always been a master at shutting out the media.

At Boise State, where he built the Broncos into a regular BCS buster, Petersen kept reporters at bay, limiting his players’ interactions with the media while convincing his players that they didn’t need to pay attention to anything written in newspapers or said on the radio and television. Marty Tadman, the defensive MVP of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the game in which Boise State famously stunned juggernaut Oklahoma, told SI earlier this season that he had no idea the Broncos were underdogs that day—because Petersen had told him to ignore the media.

But 10 years later, as Petersen’s No. 4 Huskies prepare to face No. 1 Alabama in the Peach Bowl, the coach doesn’t have that luxury. Almost every college football player in the country has a smart phone and likely has some form of social media on that phone, be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat (or, most likely, all four). Ignoring the media—much of which is saying the Huskies are going to get killed by one of the most vicious defensive lines in college football history, some of which is saying Washington is capable of giving the Crimson Tide a game—can’t be done in 2017.

And Petersen knows it.

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“We’re not trying to block it out—and it’s not realistic,” Petersen said Tuesday at a Washington press conference that featured him, Huskies athletic director Jennifer Cohen and Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan. “We just talk to our kids all the time about where we need to focus.”

The Huskies have had practice acknowledging attention before tuning it out since the summer, when they were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 North, despite going 7–6 last season with a losing record in conference play. (Washington ultimately finished first, partially because it demolished Stanford, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 title.) At Pac-12 media days in July, Petersen wryly remarked, “We have as much hype as the new Pokémon game that no one knows anything about but thinks it's really cool. That's us.”

 

Tuesday, Petersen said some people within the Washington football program, surely referring to himself, found that attention “really obnoxious and annoying.” But the hoopla is only going to build; this is the first major bowl game the Huskies have played in since the 2001 Rose Bowl. And it’s been less than a decade since they went winless in 2008.

Asked Tuesday if this is the three-year plan Petersen had laid out in his initial interview or if he was ahead of his five-year plan, Cohen, the associate athletic director when Petersen was hired, said, “Neither one of us have ever talked about an end goal. We’re all about the process, and so is he. Certainly winning championships is part of that.”

Petersen followed that up with, “This thing is for the special and the few. If everyone can do it, we’re not doing it right.”

That applies perfectly to playing the Crimson Tide; beating defending national champion Alabama, which is ranked No. 1 nationally in a host of defensive categories this season, is an achievement few have accomplished the last five years and no one has accomplished yet this season. “We’re extremely excited to be going,” Petersen said. “But we’re not so thrilled about the matchup.” On Selection Sunday, when asked about the “We Want Bama!” signs that some Washington fans held up, Petersen laughed. “Sometimes you gotta be careful what you wish for. I didn’t hold that sign up!” He’s taken a humorous tone regarding a humongous task. He said Tuesday that the Tide might be the best college team he’s seen. “What can you do but keep humor about it?”

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Petersen confirmed Tuesday that the Huskies will be without defensive lineman Joe Mathis (foot) and linebacker Azeem Victor (leg), two crucial pieces of what earlier this year was one of the best pass rushes in the country. That’s one more element working against Washington. But Petersen has been the big underdog before. He won the Fiesta Bowl twice (2007 and 2010) and upset a handful of highly ranked foes (Oregon, Virginia Tech, Georgia) at Boise State. That experience should suit him well, even though Washington is playing without a full deck. And yet ...

“That [Oklahoma] game was so long ago, I don’t even remember that,” Petersen said. “[This is a big game], we played in a lot of big games. We’ve played in some big games this year.”

He’s learned something from those games, too. Petersen said Tuesday that bowl season is not the time for long, strenuous practices. It’s finals week at Washington, and with the exception of some light weightlifting and running, players have the week off. Staying in routine is crucial. “Sometimes, you have all this time to look at all this tape, it can almost be paralyzing,” Petersen said. “We always have to pay attention to ourselves first and foremost.”

And most definitely not the media.

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