John McGrath

McGrath: Huskies have punchers’ chance to beat Alabama

Washington defensive back Budda Baker started watching tape on the Crimson Tide soon after the Huskies won the Pac-12 Championship. “I just felt like we were going to be playing Alabama,” Baker said.
Washington defensive back Budda Baker started watching tape on the Crimson Tide soon after the Huskies won the Pac-12 Championship. “I just felt like we were going to be playing Alabama,” Baker said. The Associated Press

For the Washington football team, last Sunday loomed as one of those mornings destined to be unforgotten. With the team’s national championship aspirations hanging in the balance, every player figured to remember where he was, and what he was doing, the moment the Huskies were chosen to face No. 1 Alabama on New Year’s Eve.

Junior safety Budda Baker tuned into the selection show after having spent the previous day learning everything he could about the Tide’s offensive tendencies.

“I started watching tape right after the game,” Baker said Saturday, referring to the Huskies’ 41-10 victory over Colorado for the Pac-12 title. “I just felt like we were going to be playing Alabama.”

His initial thoughts?

“A great offense,” Baker said. “They don’t really take a lot of shots and that type of stuff. They play within their strengths. They have a great O-line and they run the ball tremendously, with three great running backs and a great freshman quarterback who can run the ball and run you over. He can shake and has speed.”

As Baker was getting a head start on some homework, his teammate in the UW defensive backfield, Kevin King, took a more relaxed approach to the bombshell news.

“I was actually asleep,” said King. “I woke up, saw it on Twitter. I thought, all right, Alabama, and I went back to sleep. When I woke up, my phone had blown up.”

Different strokes for different DBs: Baker could barely contain his enthusiasm about the football assignment of a lifetime, while King — in the age-old tradition of college students everywhere — decided the only thing better than deep sleep on a Sunday morning is more sleep on a Sunday morning.

Welcome to Phase One of Peach Bowl preparation for Washington, which on Saturday held the first of 15 practices allowed by the NCAA. The team eventually will develop a more sophisticated knowledge of what makes Alabama tick, but for now, the idea is for the Huskies to reboot and refocus in anticipation of final exams this week.

“You get out of practice and you want to go full speed. We’ll get a good amount of work with some ones versus ones,” said offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith, using football jargon to describe first team players on the depth chart facing each other. “When you take three, four weeks off, you’ve got to practice fast to give yourself a chance.”

During the anxious hours between the Huskies’ Pac-12 championship victory and their official appointment to the national semifinals, Smith didn’t watch tape or pore over notes.

“We did some recruiting the next day,” said Smith. “I was on the road. I knew we were going to play somebody, and found out it was Alabama.”

The enormity of the assignment is settling in.

“It’s exciting,” said Smith. “You want to play the best to see where you stack up, and these guys are definitely the best we’ve seen so far this season. But our guys won’t back down it all. It’s a great challenge and it’ll be fun.”

What might not be fun for the Huskies will be hearing how they’ve got no shot of pulling off a monumental upset. According to metrics assembled by the statistics-based website FiveThirtyEight.com, Alabama not only is the No. 1 team of 2016, it’s the No. 1 team of all time, with Nebraska’s 1995 powerhouse ranked second and last season’s Crimson Tide coming in third.

All of which suggests Washington has about the same puncher’s chance as journeyman heavyweight Buster Douglas once brought into the ring against the unbeaten, seemingly invincible Mike Tyson in 1990.

“We hear that,” Huskies offensive tackle Trey Adams said of the Crimson Tide’s perceived superiority. “Good for them. Hopefully, they think they can come in and just roll over us.

“I think we have one of the best teams we’ve had — ever,” Adams continued. “I think it’s gonna be a good game. There’s a reason we’re in the game, for sure. If the committee didn’t think we could play with them, they wouldn’t have put us in there.”

I’m not entirely sure the committee believes the Huskies can play with the Greatest Team of All Time, but voters were tasked with picking a worthy opponent, and they deemed the UW the worthiest.

What I do know is this: As the Huskies are prepping for final exams preceding their test under the brightest of lights, head coach Chris Petersen and his assistants are working on a game plan that will find everybody in the program trusting in it.

“If we have more than a week to get ready, really good things can happen to us,” said Adams. “We’ve got great game planners. If we have time to rest and time to chill, they’ll put their minds to work and do what they’ve got to do.”

Still, I keep envisioning a Douglas-Tyson kind of mismatch in Atlanta, where the odds against the challenger will be insurmountable.

Anybody recall how that turned out? Anybody?

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