TUCSON, Ariz. — It was supposed to be a “get-right game” for the Huskies, a trifle of an opponent to fatten up on as they tried, desperately, to resurrect a disappointing season.
Instead, it threatened to devolve into a worst-case scenario in a season that has already been marked by massive underachievement. Nothing that’s happened so far, including the shocking loss to Montana that started them spiraling downward, would have equaled the utter embarrassment of losing to Arizona.
The Huskies avoided that debacle and escaped the desert with a celebration instead of the wake that they appeared headed toward for most of the night. It took a second-half rally, specifically a two-touchdown explosion in the fourth quarter, to avert disaster. But the Huskies managed to leave with a 21-16 victory that silenced, for the moment, most of the disturbing questions that had been about to boil over.
But certainly not all of them, and perhaps not for long. The Huskies struggled far too mightily to put away an Arizona team that carried an 18-game losing streak (now 19 and counting), that hadn’t recorded a victory since the 2019 season, that came in as a 17-point underdog, that was unanimously regarded as the doormat of the Pac-12, and that was starting their third-string quarterback.
If not for the flurry at the end, the Huskies would have discovered exactly where rock bottom was.
“Believe me, we’d rather win by lot than a little, but a win is a win,’’ Husky coach Jimmy Lake said. “We’re finding out a lot about ourselves going through tough losses, and going through tough wins.”
Husky fans would like to see some of that soul-searching eventually translated into dominating performances. For much of the night, however, there was no doubt who the lesser team was — and it wasn’t the one that everyone assumed it to be. It was the Huskies, who played down to their opponent early in the choppy game and then kept sinking lower.
“In the first half, we were lacking energy, pretty flat,” wide receiver Terrell Bynum said. “We knew if we could get one (big play), we’d keep it going. We just needed one spark.”
Though the offense came up with several big plays in the second half — including two 51-yard connections from quarterback Dylan Morris to Bynum — the biggest spark came from one of the biggest men on the field: 300-pound Tuli Letuligasenoa. The defensive lineman, of all people, came up with a huge interception in the third quarter as the Wildcats, already leading by nine points, were driving toward a score that would have put the game away.
“That was a huge charge for the offense, the defense, the whole team,’’ Lake said. “Tuli got a game ball for that performance.”
Grinned Letuligasenoa of his first career interception, speaking of the moment he saw the ball headed his way: “I knew it was way too good to be true. When I first caught it, I didn’t even think I had it in my hands until I looked down, and everyone started hitting me. I knew it was a huge turning point.”
What the Huskies, now 3-4, desperately need is a turning point for their season, but it would be a stretch to think that a narrow comeback win over the winless Wildcats was it.
Yes, they were missing five key players out with injury, and then the Huskies lost cornerback Alex Cook in the second quarter to a scary injury that ended with him being carted off the field and taken to the hospital. Lake said Cook was released from the hospital and was going to travel home with the team.
Once Arizona smelled the possibility of its first victory since Oct. 5, 2019 at Colorado, you could practically see them rising in confidence and verve.
But the Huskies finally rose to the moment in the second half, as the Wildcats showed the dynamics of how a team goes two years without winning. Morris, who had been battered by Arizona’s pass rush in the first half, sacked three times, suddenly began throwing strikes down the field; The Huskies, who trailed 13-0 at halftime and 16-7 after three quarters, finally took the lead with 6:44 to play on a TD pass from Morris to Rome Odunze.
It was a synopsis of the potential of this Husky offense that too often this year has struggled to find rhythm and has been stifled by unimaginative play-calling. Perhaps it took impending doom to shake them out of their doldrums — though playing a team as feeble as Arizona certainly helped.
The victory, as relieving as it was, hardly was cause for much long-term satisfaction for the Huskies. It had looked in the first half like the kind of game that usually gets someone fired, particularly in the context of the bitterly disappointing Washington season that was already in progress. It’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t have been repercussions if Arizona hadn’t self-destructed down the stretch.
The Huskies simply could not get any kind of an attack going until the second half. They managed just 65 total yards in the first half, when six straight possessions ended in a punt — one of them blocked by Arizona to lead to the first of the Wildcats’ two field goals in the period.
What was particularly galling was that the game plan once again seemed devoid of imagination. Morris missed a series when he was shaken up on a sack early in the game, but freshman Sam Huard — who Lake said was scheduled to play Friday even before Morris’ injury, was relegated mostly to handing the ball off before Morris returned. The question of whether it’s time to turn the offense over to Huard with an eye on the future — now that the present is so damaged — may have been settled for the time being by Morris in the second half. He finished with 217 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions on 13 of 21 passing.
Morris was sacked three times in the first quarter alone as the Husky offensive line, singled out by Lake as the strength of the team heading into the opener, continued its season-long struggles.
Defensively, the Huskies allowed the Wildcats to have rushing gains of 34 and 52 yards in the first half, their two longest plays of the season. Their previous long run this year was 23 yards.
In the parlance of past Husky glory, all they saw was misery. The game was conjuring up long-suppressed memories of the worst days of the program under Tyrone Willingham in 2008.
In the end, the Huskies turned disaster into a relieving triumph, just when an unfathomable outcome was crystallizing into fathomability in front of a half-empty stadium that started to sense an upset.
The Huskies went home happy. But it’s a stretch to think they solved any of the long-term issues that have made almost every game an exercise in frustration. Including, for most of the night, this one.