7 things to know about Washington

Washington quarterback Jake Browning, right, hands the Apple Cup trophy to wide receiver John Ross, left, as they walk off the field after Washington beat Washington State 45-17 in an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., in November. Ross is the player of the year on the Associated Press All-Pac-12 team announced on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. Browning was selected to the Pac-12 offense first team. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Combined ShapeCaption
Washington quarterback Jake Browning, right, hands the Apple Cup trophy to wide receiver John Ross, left, as they walk off the field after Washington beat Washington State 45-17 in an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., in November. Ross is the player of the year on the Associated Press All-Pac-12 team announced on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. Browning was selected to the Pac-12 offense first team. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Washington faces top-ranked Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The winner of the College Football Playoff semifinal game will move to the national championship game Jan. 9, 2017, in Tampa, Fla., against the winner of the Fiesta Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State.

KEY PLAYER, OFFENSE: JAKE BROWNING

The sophomore quarterback, the starter since arriving on campus, enjoyed a sensational season. He was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and became just the third player in league history to throw at least 40 touchdown passes in a season — his 42 matching Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and falling one shy of California’s Jared Goff in this rarified airspace. Browning has piled up 3,280 passing yards this season, completing 63 percent of his throws. But his campaign hasn’t been perfect. He struggled in his two biggest outings, going a combined 26-for-60 in passing for just 377 yards and 3 touchdowns against USC and Colorado. He just wasn’t accurate on the big stage. It’s a legitimate concern heading into the Alabama matchup. Browning, a California native and the son of a former Oregon State quarterback, also had difficulty throwing deep as a freshman, but a year of maturity and the return of speedy receiver John Ross from a knee injury has solved that issue. Browning is neither a great athlete nor a big arm, but his coolness under pressure and his consistently good decision-making turn him into the quarterback that he is.

KEY PLAYER, DEFENSE: BUDDA BAKER

Chris Petersen made a huge breakthrough as the new Washington football coach when he convinced the free safety to walk away from an Oregon recruiting commitment and stay home and play for the Huskies. Peterson got a consensus All-American player out of the deal and someone whose roster presence helped sway other blue-chip players to sign on, too. A junior, Baker has lived up to all the hype — he’s the most decorated player on this Washington team, a three-year starter and a two-time All-Pac-12 selection, and likely an NFL player next year. He plays center field and is interchangeable as a safety or cornerback. He even rushed once as a running back this season. He’s largely an aggressive defender with great instincts. The Huskies prefer to use him all over the field because of this, often sending him after the opposing quarterback from the edge. He leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss, which include a pair of sacks. He had a team-leading 10 tackles against Arizona. He has only five interceptions in his college career, only one this season, but that’s because opponents shy away from throwing his way. Baker will be eager to show off his elite skills to a powerful team like Alabama in the national spotlight.

KEY GAME OF THE SEASON

On a Friday night on ESPN, on the final day of September in their fifth outing of the season, before a home crowd of 72,027, the Huskies flexed their muscle against a quality opponent for the first time during the Petersen coaching era. Stanford was seventh in the polls, Washington 10th, entering the game. The lopsided outcome put the Huskies firmly in the discussion for a College Football Playoff berth and signaled that the long dormant program was worthy of national attention again. Washington rushed to a 30-0 lead and scored on seven of its 10 possessions on its way to a 44-6 victory. Browning was methodical, chewing up a Stanford secondary missing two key starters; he completed 15 of 21 passes for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns. Sophomore running back Myles Gaskin rushed for 100 yards. Washington was even more impressive on defense. The home team piled up eight sacks, six in the first half. Senior defensive end Psalm Wooching had three of them. The Husky stop unit limited standout Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey to 49 yards rushing on 12 carries. Petersen’s team was surprisingly dominant in the trenches, especially against a proven Cardinal defensive front.

UNSUNG PLAYER: LAVON COLEMAN

The emergence in 2015 of Gaskin as a freshman stalwart and a shifty, 1,300-yard rusher was a big reason why Huskies teammate Dwayne Washington skipped his senior season and declared early for the NFL draft (he was drafted by and plays for the Detroit Lions) and a factor in veteran Deontae Cooper’s decision to transfer to San Jose State. Coleman, a junior, chose to complement Gaskin this season — and he was very good at it. The California native gave Washington an entirely different dimension to its rushing game. While Gaskin preferred to hold back and wait for holes to open, and then dart through them, Coleman punished people. He carries a thick 5-foot-11, 228-pound frame and uses it to slash through the line and run squarely into someone, often taking opposing players several yards downfield with him. As a backup, he ran for 101 yards on 18 carries against Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship game. He had a career-best 181 yards rushing at Arizona. Coleman has accumulated 836 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground this season to go with Gaskin’s 1,339 yards and 10 scores. No one has been able to run effectively against Alabama. Coleman will see if a physical approach works.

STRONGEST UNIT: SECONDARY

Hands down, this position area has more star power, pro prospects and unbridled confidence than any other at Washington. In rebuilding the program, Peterson redid the defense first and came up with a defensive backfield that has no equal in the Pac-12. It has marquee players in Baker and junior cornerback Sidney Jones. While Baker draws most of the attention and accolades, Jones is an All-American pick on some lists and likewise a three-time Washington starter and twice a first-team All-Pac-12 choice. With nine career interceptions, Jones is a great cover player, making him coveted by the NFL. The rest of the supporting cast is equally impressive. Senior cornerback Kevin King is a three-year starter with six career picks, 13 pass breakups this season and a pro future. Sophomore JoJo McIntosh has been a functional starting strong safety, but he can’t afford to get complacent about his job. His backup, freshman Taylor Rapp, has topped the Huskies with four interceptions this season and is a budding star. Rapp scored on a pick from 35 yards out against Colorado, nearly found the end zone on another moments later and was named Pac-12 championship game MVP.

MOST VULNERABLE UNIT: LINEBACKERS

The players have been recycled and become beatable. That wasn’t necessarily the case when the season opened. Then unit was special. But down the stretch, the Huskies lost inside linebacker Azeem Victor and outside hybrid end-linebacker Joe Mathis to season-ending leg injuries, and the team lost some of its edge. Mathis, a senior, was the Huskies’ best pass rusher. Victor, a junior and first-team All-Pac-12 selection, was one of the team’s better defensive players, if not its heart and soul, and his departure was a huge blow. He suffered a broken leg in Washington’s only defeat this season, to USC, getting carted away with the score knotted at 3-3. Even while missing three and half games, Victor finished as the Huskies’ leading tackler with 67. Junior inside linebacker Keyshawn Bierria and Wooching on the outside are the leaders now. They’ve been season-long starters and highly productive players on the second row this season, but they were much better with Victor and Mathis next to them. The replacements, redshirt freshman D.J. Beavers and junior Connor O’Brien, are reserves masquerading as starters. They come up short to the others in the speed and experience departments. Alabama will try to exploit this pair.

HOW WASHINGTON CAN WIN THE PEACH BOWL

It can’t. No one will pick the Huskies to upset Alabama. Atlanta is the heart of the SEC, making it a Crimson Tide home game. Alabama already has reservations to the CFP title game in Tampa. Everyone says the Tide have no equal here. For those searching for an unlikely miracle, however, one word: Petersen. The Washington coach has nearly a month to plan for this game, and he does well with extended lead-up time. Ask Oklahoma about what happened in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. A Statue of Liberty play, a wide-receiver touchdown pass and misdirection, misdirection, misdirection. An uncalculated outcome for sure. For the Huskies to win this one, Browning will need to be nearly flawless running the offense. He will need to get the ball deep to the elusive Ross, whose exceptional speed tends to upset most opponents. That might open up the running game. Most of all, the Huskies will need to be competitive in the trenches on offense and defense — they weren’t against USC in their only loss and it was a huge letdown. That set the tone for a 26-13 setback and showed where Washington could be compromised.