Guide your team to a 2-0 start, check. Throw five touchdown passes to tie a school record, check. Keep your team focused on the long slog ahead in the Pac-12, check (at least for now).
You are looking at the checklist for Washington’s second-year quarterback Jake Browning, the man under center for the No. 8 Huskies and head coach Chris Petersen.
Browning has thrown for eight scores against one pick in two games so far in the 2016-17 campaign, halfway to his touchdown total (16) from a year ago. He also boasts one of the best passer ratings (207.6) in the country, and he has helped the Huskies to the team’s highest ranking since 2001. That’s all without even playing a fourth quarter in either of his team’s first two ballgames.
But that’s begs the question: Why should Browning be in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy with some many other deserving candidates across college football likely to show their true colors in time?
And Browning has used his time on the field so far in 2016 — albeit abbreviated — to showcase the growth he has made from Year One to Year Two.
The sophomore's line from Saturday’s bout with the Idaho Vandals read: 23-28 on completions, 294 yards and five touchdowns, following up on a solid debut in the season-opener against Rutgers (18-27, 287 yards, three touchdowns and one interception).
That said, Browning’s performance on Saturday showed some real savvy. Case in point, the first play from scrimmage.
After Idaho fumbled on the opening kickoff and Washington recovered, Browning and the offense went to work.
The first play called for the Huskies to take to the air, but as Browning dropped back to pass he was faced with heavy pressure up the middle. After sliding up into the pocket and sidestepping the rush, Browning was able to roll out to his right to buy some time to locate a receiver.
As he worked back through the progressions of his reads, junior wide receiver Dante Pettis came open streaking across the backside of the end zone and Browning uncorked a 21-yard toss to open the scoring.
It might seem strange to highlight the first play of the game on a day where Browning threw five touchdown passes, but the principles of good quarterback play carry over to all scenarios. Making a pitch-and-catch look good with the protection of the pocket is what most quarterbacks prepare for, but it’s the in-game variables that help separate the wheat from the chaff.
When a play begins to break down, the quarterback and receivers need to work in tandem to give the other an opportunity to make a play. More to the point, the preeminent tenet to abide bide at QB remains: KYP (Know Your Progressions).
A turnover to start the game surely had the hometown crowd of 60,000+ in a frenzy, but the best QBs find a way to remain calm, cool and collected no matter the circumstance.
Browning hit a nice rhythm early on in the game, at one point completing 13 passes in a row — tallying 175 yards and two touchdowns in the second quarter during that stretch. At the half the Huskies lead 35-0, and Browning only directed one drive in the third quarter before exiting and giving way to K.J. Carta-Samuels.
The key development to note is that Browning’s ability to process the play in front of him is improving, and he is processing things at a far greater pace than a year ago, which is surely a boon to the fortunes of the Huskies offense.
But consistency will be the key going forward for this squad and over the next few weeks the true colors of this Washington team will begin to show when Pac-12 play begins.
Next week’s contest against Portland State of the Big Sky conference is not likely to be much of a hiccup, but matchups with Arizona (9/24) and Stanford (9/30) loom large before the end of the month. It’ll be a good opportunity for the young gunslinger to test his worth against two premier conference opponents, but the running game will have to get on track by then to help keep defenses honest.
Washington is flying a bit under the radar in the Top 25, given the luxury of sitting just behind fellow Pac-12 conference mate Stanford, but with all the movement that there has been in the first two weeks Washington is not likely to stay out of the conversation for long.
One thing is for sure, by the end of September there will be more answers about Washington’s place among college football’s elite. And more specifically, there will be more clarity on whether Browning's numbers are just a passing fling or if he'll be flirting with the Heisman well into the meat of the schedule.
Honorable mention: Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
To be frank, when a guy scores eight touchdowns he should get a little love. That guy is Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage.
Ballage tied an NCAA single-game record for touchdowns when he reached the end zone eight times on Saturday against Texas Tech in a 68-55 win. He was responsible for eight of his team’s nine scores, finishing with 137 rushing yards and 48 receiving yards on the night.
His record-setting night also included dismantling the Pac-12 conference record for most touchdowns in a game.
It remains to be seen what type of performance he follows this one up with, especially with an early matchup this week against Texas-San Antonio on Friday (Sept. 16), but Ballage could be another name to watch as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman.