The Washington Huskies landed a second-half haymaker.
As well as a parade of punches.
They needed every last one of them to win.
Because, in the first half of an eventual 24-21 UW victory on Saturday, Utah rushed for 134 yards, 5.6 yards per carry and a pair of touchdowns and toted a commanding 21-0 lead into the locker room. The Huskies tackled as if afflicted with a contagious arthritis. UW redshirt freshman quarterback Dylan Morris — who has earned a reputation for mistake-free football — coughed up the first two interceptions of his college career. Redshirt junior Peyton Henry hooked a 40-yard field goal and the Huskies went 0-6 on third down.
In UW’s final team meeting on Friday night, UW coach Jimmy Lake told his team to prepare for a “street fight.” And, to follow the metaphor, his team spent 30 consecutive minutes absorbing enemy artillery.
The final play of the second quarter served as an appropriate summary. From the Utah 41-yard line, Morris heaved a Hail Mary into the corner of the end zone that Utah safety Zemaiah Vaughn intercepted and returned 73 yards for a near-pick-six. Inside an empty Husky Stadium, the Utes’ howls echoed as they sprinted to the road locker room.
Beyond the opposite end zone, Lake had something else to say.
“They landed a lot of blows, and that’s what I told the team at halftime,” UW’s first-year coach said Saturday night. “I said, ‘Hey, Utah just landed some left hooks, some right hooks, some body blows and we took ‘em. Now we need to come out in the second half and we need to start throwing our punches, and we need to land a haymaker at the end.”
Sure enough, the punches piled up.
Morris’ 38-yard strike to Washington wide receiver Terrell Bynum to begin the second half was a punch. Senior running back Kamari Pleasant plummeted into the end zone from two yards out on the next play.
Elijah Molden’s interception of Utah quarterback Jake Bentley was a punch. Trailing 21-7, he cut in front of a pass on third-and-6 and returned the football 24 yards to set up a Henry field goal.
The Husky defense’s fourth-and-1 stop late in the third quarter was a punch. Josiah Bronson — who slid to outside linebacker to start in place of Ryan Bowman, who missed the game for an unspecified reason — stood up Bentley on an attempted quarterback sneak from the Huskies’ 41-yard line.
Morris’ back-to-back 21-yard completions to junior tight end Cade Otton was a hook-uppercut combination, with the latter completion enough for a score that narrowed the deficit to 21-17.
Morris — a 6-foot, 200-pounder from Puyallup — took punches and gave them. He completed 23 of 38 passes for 272 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
“At halftime that guy was about as positive … you could look him in his eyes and you could tell that he was going to lead our team and put some points on the board in the second half,” Lake said.
Added Molden: “He didn’t flinch after the first half. He’s a leader on offense. He’s a young guy, but he’s a leader on offense.”
Molden, meanwhile, is UW’s unquestioned defensive leader. And, like Lake, he had something to say.
“My (halftime) message was, ‘Don’t be soft,’” he said with a smile. “You know, it’s easy when things don’t go your way to kind of hang your head and feel sorry for yourself. I think we were fighting that. We were fighting that feeling. Everyone feels that deep down. You get that voice in your head that wants to make excuses and stuff.
“But blocking that noise out, staying hard and then coming out in the second half with a sense of urgency, that’s what it comes down to.”
Ultimately, it came down to an accumulation of punches. Redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio led the Huskies with 14 tackles. Early in the fourth quarter, UW cornerback Kyler Gordon stripped Utah running back Ty Jordan at the Huskies’ 15-yard line, and outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui returned the bouncing ball 29 yards down the sideline.
And, speaking of Tupuola-Fetui, the transcendent redshirt sophomore added another six tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble Saturday.
“(The coaches) just told us (at halftime) to keep our heads down and go to work,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “There was never a flinch in confidence. I had just come off that (roughing the passer) penalty. I was in my head. And the coaches came in, started talking about adjustments and told us it’s our game.
“So they just instilled that confidence in us and we were able to take that into the second half, and here we are.”
There they were, with 4:31 left and 88 yards to travel — trailing Utah 21-17. Morris completed back-to-back passes to sophomore wide receiver Puka Nacua, for 14 and 15 yards. And, with 44 seconds on the clock, he found Otton from 16 yards out for the go-ahead touchdown.
When cornerback Trent McDuffie intercepted Bentley with 18 seconds left, that ended it.
The Huskies finally found their second-half haymaker.
“I was kind of overcome with emotion (after McDuffie’s interception),” Tupuola-Fetui said. “The game was up in the air for so long, and with all these stats and everything that I was doing (individually), it’s fun and it’s cool. But the biggest stat is a win.
“And when he came down (with the interception), that was actually probably the first comeback I’ve ever been apart of. I just had to take in the moment. I was just overcome — just in such awe of this team.”
Added Otton, who led the way with eight catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns: “I might have had a couple (game-winning touchdowns) in high school, but this was the biggest of my career, for sure. I just think about how it couldn’t have happened without so many plays before it putting us in the situation to win the game. I’m the fortunate face to catch the winning touchdown.”
On this particular Saturday, every punch was necessary. It was the first time Washington has overcome a halftime deficit of 21 points or more since a 28-27 win over Cal in 1988.
In the end, despite a barrage of body blows, the Huskies were still standing.
“That’s one of the reasons why I play football — probably the biggest reason why I play football,” said Molden, who contributed eight tackles with a tackle for loss and an interception. “Because it’s not always going to go your way, and you just have to work through it.”