For a moment, it looked as though the Huskies had made something resembling a full recovery. The much-maligned offense was moving with ease. The defense was forcing turnovers and stuffing Cal on key third and fourth downs.
The 60,000 fans in attendance likely thought they could leave the stadium feeling good about this team — that the humiliations at the hands of Montana and Michigan were more growing pains than they were projections of what was to come.
But Saturday, those feelings disintegrated in a second half filled with strife. They disappeared as Washington floundered and fumbled and nearly frittered away a 14-point second-half lead against the budding nemesis that is Cal.
Yes, the Huskies pulled out a 31-24 overtime win — thanks primarily to them forcing a game-sealing fumble when Cal had it on first and goal from the 2. But it’s hard to say Washington (2-2, 1-0 in the Pac-12) proved much. Far too many questions remain.
For a minute, this column was going to be about Washington offensive coordinator John Donovan stiff-arming the criticism he’s been getting from every corner of the Husky fan base. It was going to be about how he’d bought himself some time and, for the next few weeks, at least, had given the pink slip the slip.
The man overseeing an offense that scored just 17 points its first two games — including a mere seven in the loss to Montana of the FCS — had seemingly found redemption. The Huskies put up 52 points in their Week 3 win over Arkansas State and had 21 by halftime against Cal.
With their top receivers healthy (minus tight end Cade Otton, who missed Saturday’s game while in COVID protocol) the “O” looked reminiscent of the team that averaged more than 30 points in 2020.
Then Cal adjusted … and Washington didn’t.
After scoring on four straight possessions after an opening-drive three-and-out, the Huskies went scoreless for the final 22 1/2 minutes of regulation. They’d get sacked on third down or cough up the football or make kicker Peyton Henry try a 47-yard field goal that he pushed to the left.
Any confidence folks may have developed in this offense through the first 37 minutes had vanished. We’ll see how much of that belief comes back in the games to come.
For another minute, this column was going to be about Washington’s domineering defense. Despite the offense’s second-half ineptitude, the Huskies kept holding Cal off.
There was UW cornerback Kyler Gordon ripping off a pair of interceptions — one in the first half and another in the second. There was the turnover on downs early in the fourth quarter, when Washington held a seven-point lead.
But Cal found a way to slither through the defense when it needed to — most notably on its penultimate drive of the second half, when the Bears marched 62 yards and tied the score with 2:51 left in the game. Heck, had they had 30 more seconds left in regulation, they might have scored again (they drove 43 yards in just over a minute) but were forced to attempt a 55-yard field goal that fell short.
No, throughout the second half, the Huskies’ defense looked just as vulnerable as their offense. Even in overtime, Cal (1-3, 0-1) moved with little resistance before the fumble. And it wasn’t like the Huskies were lining up against an offensive juggernaut.
This season has been trying for the Huskies, and Saturday night offered no evidence that relief is in sight. Yes, they got the win — one of the more dramatic wins in recent history — and have momentum heading into Oregon State. But this felt more like an escape than it did a victory.
Hey, you never know how a team will adjust from week to week. Football is often just as much about matchups as it is about talent. Plus, there are some low-quality teams in the Pac-12. An assortment of victories may be in the Huskies’ future.
Saturday didn’t indicate that will be the case, though. Husky fans should savor this one. It was a hell of a win given the circumstances — but it’s still unclear whether many wins will follow.