TUCSON, Ariz. – The crisis was mounting, the frustration was growing, the criticism was multiplying and confusion and ineptitude seemed to be ingrained into Washington’s beleaguered offense.
The Huskies were headed, by all appearances, to another demoralizing defeat against an ostensibly inferior opponent. This was one that would have punctured, once and for all, their hopes of mustering something from a season that once brimmed with optimism. This would have been a stake into the heart.
And then halftime happened, and that narrative was blasted into the Tucson desert, in the wake of a slow-developing but deeply satisfying 51-27 rout of Arizona.
At least for now. The Huskies will head into their vital showdown with Oregon this week believing – with evidence to back it up this time – that they can indeed be a fully functioning offense. They feel they unlocked some doors behind which were hidden the keys to shake them out of the offensive malaise which threatened to bury their season.
“When you finish a game strong, you carry that over into the next game,’’ said running back Sean McGrew, who exceeded 100 yards for the second time this year and was nearly joined by Salvon Ahmed with 95.
But when the Huskies put on the tape of this game, they will also see a first half that mirrored the multi-faceted breakdowns a week earlier against Stanford. Chris Petersen had been unable to muster much second-half magic in his Washington reign. As was chronicled by Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins, the Huskies had lost 10 straight games under Petersen in which they were trailing at halftime, and 15 of their past 16.
But this time, he and his staff conjured up some remedies. Or maybe the players just finally were fed up with being stymied by one of the lesser defenses in the Pac-12, knowing that one of the best in the country awaits them next week in the Ducks.
“I think we just came together as an offense and realized what we needed to do and just kind of manned up,’’ Ahmed said. “It was like, we’ve got to get this done. We’ve got to come out of here with a win.”
Sputtering with just 134 yards of total offense in the first half, despite being bestowed with numerous scoring opportunities by their defense, the Huskies unleashed the kind of explosive attack that had been reserved this season mostly for nonconference patsies. After intermission, they put up 316 yards while outscoring Arizona 38-10.
The instigator on the field was quarterback Jacob Eason, who for a half was heading a passing attack that seemed just as jittery and halting as it had been against Stanford. But in the second half, with a vitally needed new target in freshman Puka Nacua (three catches, 97 yards), Eason went 8 for 10 for 178 yards and two touchdowns.
And the instigator off the field may have been Eason as well. Though Petersen and Ahmed both said that there wasn’t much of a fiery message at halftime (“There wasn’t a lot to be said, but there was a lot to still do,’’ is how Ahmed put it) Eason said he stepped out of his comfort zone to assert a vocal leadership presence. He plans to keep doing that, which might be the most promising development of all to come out of this victory.
The players clearly responded to all of it – the 17-13 halftime deficit, the mounting red-zone woes and inability to sustain an offensive rhythm. Ahmed said they challenged themselves to be more physical on offense, and felt their running game eventually wore down the Wildcats. And the Huskies responded in a huge way to Eason’s challenge that it was time to get it done.
“It was a message of, we know what we can do,’’ Eason said. “We know the kind of offense we are, we know the guys we have, the skill players, the o-line. We can move people up front. We can make plays on the ball and we can run the ball really well. We just have to be able to believe that.
“Like I told Puka, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming.’ In the fourth quarter, he had that go-ball conversion. Guys have to believe in themselves. When the guys believe in themselves, we’re a dangerous team. That showed in the second half.”
This was a game that the Huskies should have seized control of almost immediately, wringing the spirit out of Arizona before it was allowed to be restored. But in the first half, it was the Huskies who were rendered confused and on the verge of demoralization.
The Husky defense, chided last week for being out-physicaled by Stanford, came out with a vengeance, augmented by a ferocious special-teams unit. The combo produced a blocked punt, a scoop-and-score touchdown and a fumble recovery at the Arizona 8 on a muffed punt.
Yet the Husky offense did not reward that largesse in the slightest in the first half, succumbing to the same old maladies. Inept red-zone performance. Head-scratching play calling. A passing game that seemed lost at sea, and a rushing attack that couldn’t get the tough yards near the end zone.
“Just a really slow start on offense, but our defense was spectacular, really, that first quarter and a half,’’ Petersen said. “We just couldn’t get any rhythm going on offense. We had these unbelievable field positions, and then three-and-out, field goal, whatever. So the whole first half was very, very frustrating on offense.”
And then that frustration morphed into the exhilaration of their second-half surge. Asked if it was something the Huskies could sustain and carry forward to next week, Petersen let out a big sigh and gave a wan smile.
“I sure hope so, right? I think the thing that’s as frustrating as anything is being in the red zone, having that unbelievable field position, and just not getting anything done there.
“We have to spend more time in practice in that area. We just have to. We have to allow more time to it, and your time is so tight with these different situations. But we just have to spend more time there.”
Just maybe, on Saturday, the Huskies’ offense showed what they can do when they put their mind to it.