PROVO, Utah – In a battle between No. 2 and No. 2, Aaron Fuller was No. 1.
Washington’s senior wide receiver won that particular battle with 3:50 remaining in the first quarter of a 45-19 win on Saturday, in the diamond-shaped “U” in the middle of the end zone. On second-and-10 from the Brigham Young 17-yard line, junior quarterback Jacob Eason took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff and fit a fastball into a tight window between two Cougar defensive backs.
There wasn’t much space.
There didn’t need to be much space.
“I just think he throws a lot faster so he’s going to trust his arm to put (the ball) in those windows,” Fuller said. “You’ve got to be ready at any time to catch the ball, whether it’s in traffic or wide open.”
Fuller (Washington’s No. 2) was ready, as was free safety Austin Lee (BYU’s No. 2). The senior receiver leaped, caught the ball with both hands, landed, absorbed the blow from Lee, and — for a split-second — stood there, triumphant, staring down the DB.
But please, don’t misunderstand: there was no intended disrespect.
“I think more than anything, I was just tired,” Fuller said with a grin after the game. “With the elevation and it being one of the first drives, I was out of breath.”
The BYU defense didn’t have much time to catch its breath on Saturday. Washington gained 477 total yards and punted exactly once. In a clean pocket, Eason painted an aerial masterpiece, completing 24 of 28 passes for 290 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He was not sacked.
And when Eason is upright, he makes everybody better.
“When he’s firing on all cylinders, it gives us all confidence — o-line, tight ends, running backs and wide receivers,” said senior wide receiver Andre Baccellia, who scooted up the middle on a slant for a 35-yard third-quarter touchdown. “That just gives us more incentive to run the cleanest routes we possibly can, be as detailed as possible and work as hard as we can.”
On Saturday, the Washington Huskies’ hard work — and waiting — paid off. In his 45th career game, Fuller finally scored his first punt-return touchdown, bolting 88 yards along the left edge and virtually untouched into the end zone.
During the play, a BYU player was penalized for an illegal block below the waist.
But Fuller didn’t know that initially. Before the penalty was announced, there was only lingering panic.
“Oh, I did (see the flag),” Fuller said. “I was scared. That’s all I can say. I was scared and tired, most of all. I saw the flag and I couldn’t even celebrate.”
Fuller added after the game that he was “praying” for the long-awaited punt return to pay dirt.
He may not have been the only one.
“I can’t tell you how frustrated I’ve been for Aaron,” said UW coach Chris Petersen. “Because I think he’s really good. I think he’s super courageous. He’s very sure handed. He’s everything we want in a punt returner. We’ve just got to give the guy a little room.
“We’ve been waiting for that. He’s been waiting for that. I think the credit will first go to the guys in front of him. If you give him a little space, and there’s some good blocking, he’ll find it and he can do some good things.”
In a convincing road win, there were plenty of good things to go around. Junior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman strip-sacked BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, and senior linebacker (and former Eastside Catholic running back) Brandon Wellington scooped the ball up and galloped 69 yards into the end zone. Without junior starter Salvon Ahmed, who missed the game with a leg injury, junior running back Sean McGrew ran for 110 yards and redshirt freshman Richard Newton scored two more touchdowns. In his first career start, freshman cornerback Trent McDuffie forced (and recovered) the first fumble of his career, and freshman DB Asa Turner added an interception.
The UW defense, which failed to force a turnover in its first two games, has erupted for three takeaways in each of the past two.
“I think once guys see the turnovers happening, they become more ball-aware and more ball-hungry,” said senior safety Myles Bryant, who led the Huskies with nine tackles. “Shout out to Ryan Bowman on that strip sack, allowing Brandon to score, and then Trent McDuffie and Asa Turner as well. As long as we keep this thing going I think we’ll be in good shape.”
This was a complete — yet imperfect — performance. Eason did throw his second interception of the season. On the other side, Wilson completed 26 of 42 passes (61.9 percent) for 277 yards and a score. Newton fumbled twice, providing what Petersen called “tremendous learning situations.”
After it was over, Eason ran up the road tunnel, high-fiving Husky fans with his left hand and holding his helmet with his right. As he went, the junior’s mouthguard fell out of his golden helmet and settled on the blue carpet. The supposedly immobile pocket passer backpedaled, bent down, picked it up, smiled and showed it to the crowd, which responded with a hearty cheer.
In the wake of a resounding road win, this was one fumble that could be forgiven.