The California Golden Bears were one inch away from the end zone. One hundred yards and a 14-point swing later, Shaq Thompson was in the other end zone.
Thompson’s 100-yard fumble recovery in the first quarter was called the best play of the game by coach Chris Petersen after the Washington Huskies defeated the Bears, 31-7, on Saturday.
After driving inside the 1-yard line on Cal’s second offensive possession, Bears quarterback Jared Goff tried to jump over the pile and into the end zone, but the ball slipped out of his hand while he was in the air. The ball fell to Thompson and from there, Thompson took off.
“(It was) probably as big as you can get,” Petersen said of the linebacker’s return. “There wasn’t a better play than that in the whole game, in terms of when it came. … He seems to always make a play when we need him.”
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The play was the fourth 100-yard play in UW history, and the longest fumble return for a touchdown. It spurred the Huskies to their first Pac-12 win of the season and it was the first of many big turnovers for the visiting team Saturday.
Entering the game against the Bears, the Huskies were the second-best team in the nation for turnover differential — plus-11. By the time they walked off the field at Memorial Stadium under the setting Northern California sun, the Huskies had taken the top spot.
After recovering three fumbles against the Bears and forcing five in total, UW improved its turnover margin to plus-14, which now leads the FBS.
“We’re trying to lead the whole college football in that,” Thompson said. “So that’s our mentality, just creating turnovers and giving the ball to our offense.”
Petersen’s coaching staff has put an emphasis on forcing turnovers this season, saying it’s the defense’s job to either score or get the ball back for the offense.
Saturday, the UW defense did both.
Along with Thompson’s recovery, defensive lineman Danny Shelton recovered two more fumbles, one forced by linebacker Travis Feeney and another by defensive lineman Andrew Hudson.
All three of the takeaways led to UW points. Of its 15 forced turnovers this year, Washington has turned nine into touchdowns (four of those coming on defense) and one field goal. Feeney’s forced fumble that was recovered on the Cal 16-yard line early in the fourth quarter led to the one field goal.
“It’s super important every game,” Shelton said of forcing turnovers. “We try to maximize our opportunities making turnovers. We try to challenge ourselves to three turnovers a game. I don’t know if we met that, but that’s always the goal for every week.”