Dante Pettis, the slick-striding, sure-handed wide receiver for the Washington Huskies, certainly gets up for season-opening games.
But Pettis The Punt Returner? He zips into an otherworldly zone, which is a good thing for the reigning Pac-12 champions.
Pettis’ 61-yard punt return for a touchdown sparked a surprisingly-spooked Huskies squad late in the first half, and eighth-ranked UW beat Rutgers, 30-14, on Friday night in front of 46,093 at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“Give Dante space … he is usually going to make something happen,” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
This was an entirely different tale than the matchup a year ago – a 48-13 UW victory at Husky Stadium when the hosts jumped out to a 24-0 lead after the first quarter.
Under new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, Rutgers just kept ripping at the underbelly of the Huskies’ defensive interior with power runs. And the Scarlet Knights went directly down the field on their opening drive – 59 yards on 11 plays – to score on Kyle Bolin’s 3-yard touchdown strike to Janarion Grant.
It was Rutgers’ first opening-drive touchdown since late in the 2015 season.
Wake-up call? Not quite.
The Huskies could not get much going on offense, except for Jake Browning’s 52-yard pass to Pettis that set up Tristan Vizcaino’s 24-yard field goal with 56 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Browning, in the early going, completed just five of 11 passes for 81 yards. The Huskies were 0-for-5 on third downs. And the junior from California took one of the hardest hits of his career when he was demolished on a blitz by Darnell Davis.
“We just missed on some little things here and there,” Browning said.
But all week, UW coach Chris Petersen emphasized how important special teams play is early in a season, especially when teams don’t go through a lot of hard tackling during fall camp.
He was right, too.
What cannot be overlooked is how it was all set up. New UW punter Joel Whitford’s line-drive punt was downed at the Scarlet Knights’ 2 by cornerback Byron Murphy with more than six minutes remaining in the first half.
Trapped deep in its own end, Rutgers ran three consecutive run plays, totaling zero yards.
Rutgers’ Ryan Anderson unleashed a spiraling punt all the way back to the UW 40-yard line, which Pettis initially bobbled.
“He’s got new tricks,” Petersen said. “He tries to fumble.”
But once he gained control, he took off up the middle, hopped over Rutgers defensive back Kiy Hester as he gained steamed and broke out to the left sideline, going 61 yards untouched for the score go give the Huskies a 10-7 lead at the 3:50 mark.
“For some reason, whenever punters are backed up, they boom the ball. He kicked it like 60 yards or something,” Pettis said. “I ran backwards and just misjudged it and dropped it. I didn’t really panic much. I just picked it up, looked straight and my guys did a great job of clearing everybody out.”
It was the third consecutive season-opening game that Pettis has scored on a punt return. He went 76 yards in 2015 in the third quarter against Boise State, and 68 yards, also in the third quarter, against the Scarlet Knights last season.
Pettis, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior from San Clemente, California, also tied Desean Jackson’s Pac-12 career mark for punt return touchdowns with his sixth score Friday.
“It gave us a little bit of an energy boost, gave us a little bit of a swing to the game,” Pettis said.
In the second half, Browning rediscovered a pair of backfield mates – running backs Lavon Coleman and Myles Gaskin.
After the Huskies stopped Rutgers just past midfield to start the second half, Browning led a 10-play, 83-yard march that ended with his 7-yard touchdown toss to Coleman, who was alone in the right flat. The Huskies led, 17-7.
And after Murphy’s second interception in his debut, the UW cashed in on Browning’s 18-yard scoring pass to Gaskin along the left sideline on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 27-7 Huskies’ lead.
“We won. That is what we are here for. We got that done,” Petersen said. “But I do think that it was a little bit of a wake-up call.”