The football game didn’t matter much for a few minutes in the third quarter on Saturday.
Washington redshirt freshman M.J. Tafisi — a 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker — lay on his back, as his teammates formed a line by his side. Several kneeled in a row on the 30-yard line and prayed. Tafisi — whose injury on the previous play did not appear to be caught on camera — was transferred to a backboard, before being carted off the field. He lifted his right arm and gave a thumbs up sign to the crowd inside Arizona Stadium before transported to a local hospital.
“We think (Tafisi’s all right),” UW head coach Chris Petersen said following his team’s 51-27 win over Arizona. “He’s at the hospital and they’re doing the final checks on that. He’s moving and all those things. They’re just making sure that they’re not missing anything.”
Later, a team spokesperson confirmed that Tafisi was released from the hospital and he flew back to Seattle with the rest of his team.
It can be difficult, obviously, to watch a teammate sustain a potentially serious injury, then refocus on the game.
But that’s what UW did.
“I kind of felt like they almost rallied behind him,” Petersen said. “I don’t know. I felt like they wanted to play harder for him. I know that’s very unsettling to everybody in the stadium and certainly us and his teammates.”
Added senior safety Myles Bryant, who finished with five tackles as well as a forced fumble and a tackle for loss: “I feel like the guys we have in the room, we have a pretty tight-knit brotherhood. We understand that if somebody goes down, we’ve got to be there for them. I feel like we did our best to kind of play in the name of MJ. I feel like guys came out from that point and turned it up from there.”
A West Jordan, Utah, product, Tafisi has contributed 13 tackles in seven games this season. But that’s not what really mattered on Saturday night.
Puka’s big catches
Puka Nacua makes plays.
Isn’t that obvious by now?
It was certainly apparent early in the fourth quarter on Saturday, when UW quarterback Jacob Eason took a shotgun snap from his 41-yard line and uncorked a looping liner to his left. Freshman wide receiver Puka Nacua used his entire 6-1, 204-pound frame to leap, snatch the ball away from cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, land at the 28-yard line, juke a safety and drag Roland-Wallace like a pesky parachute to the 10.
Nacua finished with three catches for 97 yards, with that 49-yarder being the long.
“We know what Puka can do. I’ve known it all along,” Eason said. “I think he hasn’t had many opportunities to go make those plays, and he had a couple opportunities tonight. I knew what he could do, and I think he knows it too. He’s playing confident. He’s a young guy, but he’s a hell of an athlete and he can make some big-time plays.”
Nacua made a few of those on Saturday, snaring contested catches in man coverage.
And, inevitably, his coaches (and everyone else) took notice.
“(He was) really good,” Petersen said. “You guys saw it: he was awesome. It was nice to have some balls going his way. It was nice to get him in there.”
And the expectation is that the Husky coaching staff will continue to get him in more and more.
“Well, we’ll find out,” Petersen said, when asked if Nacua has a knack for contested catches. “I think he caught every kind of ball in high school. So we’re still kind of figuring him out. But he is a big body and he’s got tremendous hands. He really does.
“That’s the one thing that we’re learning. If you get it around him, he’s got those strong hands that can attack the ball.”
Turner’s surprise first start
On Saturday, a true freshman replaced a true freshman in the starting lineup.
Specifically, Asa Turner took over for Cam Williams at the safety spot, after having previously operated primarily as a nickelback this season. The 6-3, 187-pound defensive back continued to impress, turning in four tackles and a tackle for loss in the win.
But, according to Petersen, it didn’t come out of nowhere.
“Asa’s been playing well for the last three weeks,” Petersen said. “He goes into the BYU game and picks off a pass at the very end of the game. Then he goes into the USC game and plays a handful of reps and he plays them all really well. Then he got in the game a little bit at Stanford.
“Everything he’d been doing, he’d been doing well at practice. I thought he played from the naked eye pretty well again tonight. It’s nice to get another DB in there that you feel confident about.”
Junior Brandon McKinney also received plenty of reps in the place of Williams, who was benched after surrendering long touchdown passes in back-to-back weeks. McKinney finished with one tackle.
But Turner took advantage of his relatively unexpected starting opportunity.
“(I see) Just growth … every day,” Bryant said. “Coming in for fall camp, he was a guy who came in wide-eyed, didn’t really know what was going on or where he would fit in. But I feel like each week, each day he gets better. He’s a quiet guy, but the stuff he does on the field makes a lot of noise.
“He made a few big plays today that kind of go unnoticed. If he misses a few tackles then they might score 60-yard touchdowns. But that’s something that everybody on the field notices and appreciates. Every day he’s getting better, and I feel like the sky’s the limit for him.”
Homecoming magic for Mele
Washington was down two starting offensive linemen for the majority of Saturday’s win.
But you wouldn’t have known it from the scoreboard.
In the place of senior center Nick Harris, who missed the game with an injury, Tucson native Matteo Mele made his first career start. The 6-5, 305-pound redshirt freshman recently starred at Salpointe High School, which is a roughly 10-minute drive from Arizona Stadium.
But that’s not at all. When right guard Jaxson Kirkland went down with an injury in the first quarter, sophomore Henry Bainivalu replaced him for the rest of the game.
The Huskies promptly rushed for 207 yards, three touchdowns and 4.6 yards per carry, and Eason was sacked only once.
“I think it’s awesome to get those guys in there and get those real reps,” Petersen said of Mele and Bainivalu. “We need those guys. We thought they’re good players. Both those other two guys (Harris and Kirkland) are hard guys to not have in there. They’ve played so much football for us, and they’re really good players. So next man up. That’s this time of the season, though.”
Westover’s arrow points north
A Washington tight end scored a touchdown on Saturday.
It wasn’t Hunter Bryant or Cade Otton.
Indeed, redshirt freshman walk-on Jack Westover proved to be an unexpectedly effective red zone threat, spilling out of the backfield in play-action before hauling in a three-yard touchdown. He later helped push junior running back Salvon Ahmed into the end zone for a 4-yard score, and finished with two catches for seven yards and the aforementioned touchdown.
To this point, Westover has been used primarily as a blocking fullback in the red zone.
But perhaps the 6-3, 241-pound tight end from Bellevue is capable of even more.
“Jack’s a hard-working guy that’s very athletic. He really is,” Petersen said. “He’s got a tremendous vertical jump and good hands. Like all tight ends coming out of high school, he’s still learning to block. But we line him up in the backfield and all those things. So he’s making good progress.”