Let’s face it, the Washington Huskies came into Saturday’s game still shrouded in mystery.
Draw quick and bold conclusions at your own peril in this disjointed Covid season, where fortunes can change drastically in a week – if you’re lucky enough to get a game in; and besides, it was hard to tell too much about the Huskies in a close, close-to-the-vest win over Oregon State.
But after a 44-27 dismantling of Arizona on Saturday at Husky Stadium by Washington, the shadowy outline is coming into form. And it is revealing a Husky team with a chance to forge something special in a season that by its very nature works against sustained success.
Make no mistake: For most of the night, this was utter and complete domination by UW, undermined only slightly by four Arizona touchdowns in the fourth quarter once the Huskies emptied their bench.
But that was after the Huskies had built a 37-0 lead on the back of a 365-62 yardage disparity, and had the Wildcats visibly frustrated, if not broken.
“I don’t blame them,’’ Husky tight end Cade Otton said. “I’d be frustrated, too.”
One got the feeling that the Huskies’ first unit could have kept scoring at will – and holding Arizona out of the end zone for perpetuity. As coach Jimmy Lake said afterward, “It could almost have been 60-0 if we caught some passes.”
This was a performance good enough to make fans dream – and to ponder what might have transpired in a normal season.
Of course, whomever best embraces and masters 2020’s abnormality will be the ones that soar this year. And Washington, thus far, has shown nothing but an ability to ride the ebbs and flows, and Saturday that turned into a wave.
The Huskies showed they can unleash the balanced offense that Lake craves, and promised. They had 239 yards through the air, 233 on the ground, a sublime mix after a conservative game plan against Oregon State.
“Every game, we’re going to see what we can take advantage of on the opposing defense, and then we’re going to do it,’’ Lake said. “We’ll be multi-faceted.”
Quarterback Dylan Morris, in his second career start, showed that he can run the Husky attack with poise and precision. And the Huskies showed that they will keep churning out fresh backs, who gained in effectiveness as the game progressed. Sean McGrew, Kamari Pleasant and Richard Newton each ran for a touchdown (two for Newton), while the fourth back, Cameron Davis, had maybe the most impressive run of the night, a Beast Mode-esque 17-yard romp in which he dragged Arizona defenders for the last half of it.
The quartet operated behind an offensive line that had Lake almost giddy in his praise.
“I know for a fact our humongous offensive line wears on people,’’ he said. “Eventually, you’re going to break. It’s over 2,000 pounds, and if we keep pounding it, we feel eventually the dam is going to break.”
It was a night of some daring by the Huskies, with a successful fake punt from their own 31 on their first possession of the game to sustain an eventual scoring drive. There was a splash of razzle-dazzle, and there was some audacity, with the Huskies going (unsuccessfully) for two on a fake after a touchdown that put them up 30-0.
“We’re always throwing little wrinkles here and there,’’ said linebacker Ryan Bowman. “We always want people to be surprised at what they’re seeing. There’s going to be more, too.”
No, these aren’t Chris Petersen’s Huskies any more. They are, it appears, more freewheeling under Lake (and new offensive coordinator John Donovan), more willing to take a few chances and go against the grain.
“We said from day one we were going to be aggressive and attack in all three phases,’’ Lake said. “Hopefully you saw that in the first game, and you definitely saw it in Game 2, and you’ll definitely see it moving forward.”
It was on defense that Lake made his mark under Petersen, and the smothering performance of that unit Saturday was the part of the game that bodes so promisingly for the future.
The Huskies seem to be developing a bona fide star in outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who had two of the Huskies’ five sacks in matching his total from the first game. But the entire unit was working seamlessly in breaking the will of Arizona players as the score mounted.
“That’s the best feeling there is as a defense, when you know you have them on their heels,’’ Bowman said. “For us, it’s attack, attack, attack.”
Keep in mind the Huskies were playing, again, without two of their top defensive players, Tuli Letuligasenoa and Laiatu Latu. They were on the sidelines, but no explanation was offered for their absence.
It’s hard to know how much credence to give Arizona, which hasn’t won a game since Washington crushed it 51-27 with a second-half blitz last October. That was the first of seven straight defeats by the Wildcats to end 2019, and they are 0-2 to start 2020. But they took USC, considered one of the Pac-12’s powerhouses, to the brink last week, scoring 30 points and running up 418 yards in a 34-30 loss.
Yet the Huskies made them look totally overmatched, on both sides of the ball, while the starters were in. After struggling against Oregon State’s running attack, the Huskies took away Arizona’s run and made them one-dimensional. And on offense, Morris was 15 of 25 for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Once again, he didn’t turn the ball over and was sacked just once.
If you want to nitpick, Morris struggled a bit with long passes downfield, overthrowing some open receivers, and there were a couple of drops, too. The Huskies prolonged two Arizona drives by running into the punter. Defensive back Brandon McKinney was flagged for targeting in the fourth quarter and will miss the first half of their next game – which Lake said he is still assuming will be against Washington State. (The Huskies also had two other targeting calls, against Keith Taylor and Kyler Gordon, erased after review). The four touchdowns allowed in the fourth quarter will sting, second string or not.
But those quibbles were swallowed up in a wave of Husky euphoria. Lake began his postgame Zoom call by declaring, “That’s Husky football right there.”
Now we’re finally starting to get a clearer picture of what that means.