BOULDER, Colo. – In order to corral Ralphie V, the massive buffalo that takes a full lap around Folsom Field just before each Colorado Buffaloes football game, a team of handlers is required.
At the end of Ralphie’s brief, crowd-pleasing sprint, she is guided by those handlers into a trailer waiting beyond the corner of the north end zone. Ralphie barrels in, the door to the trailer closes, and the buffalo is confined within for the safety of everyone involved.
Shaq Thompson, however, was left to roam free.
The Washington Huskies won here on Saturday, 38-23, and it’s worth wondering what that score might have looked like if Thompson hadn’t lined up at tailback. The junior linebacker – and that designation should be used loosely now – again played offense exclusively, carrying the ball 15 times for 174 yards and a touchdown, in addition to a dump-off pass that he turned into a 41-yard reception to help set up a crucial touchdown just before halftime.
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That’s a total of 215 yards from scrimmage on 17 touches. For a guy who started each of UW’s first six games at linebacker and has scored four defensive touchdowns this season.
“He’s a ballplayer. Y’all know that. Everybody knows that,” said third-year sophomore quarterback Cyler Miles, whose effort in the passing game benefited from Thompson’s game-changing presence. “Shaq’s gonna do his thing no matter where you put him at. I’m glad to have him on my side.”
It looked early as if UW’s defense might have needed him more. Colorado raced to a 10-0 lead behind a 30-yard touchdown pass from Sefo Liufau to D.D. Goodson, and a 43-yard run by Michael Adkins that set up a short field goal.
But with Thompson in the backfield, it seemed only a matter of time before the Huskies put the screws to the Pac-12’s worst rushing defense.
“He has a big game, every game, wherever we put him,” coach Chris Petersen said.
It didn’t take long. On the first play of UW’s next possession, Thompson rushed 39 yards into Colorado territory. Then he rushed for eight more yards. Five plays later, on 4th-and-1, Thompson took an option pitch from Miles and ran 24 yards for the Huskies’ first touchdown.
“I still have my defensive mentality,” said Thompson, reserved as usual. “It’s always defense first, but it just feels good to help out the offense every once in a while.”
As a result, UW’s downfield passing game was the best it’s been all season. Miles completed 13-of-19 for 206 yards and two touchdowns, including a 28-yard scoring toss to freshman Dante Pettis off of play-action to give the Huskies their first lead, 24-23, with 5:38 to play in the third quarter.
Miles also led a 7-play, 78-yard drive in the final minutes of the first half that he capped with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Kendyl Taylor to cut UW’s halftime deficit to 20-17.
That drive was aided by Thompson’s 41-yard reception, which he caught near the line of scrimmage.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Petersen said. “I keep saying I know he can play three positions really, really good, if not five. He’s fun to watch. He’s fun for us as coaches to watch. … He’s going to run through an arm tackle, or he’s got enough athleticism to make guys miss. He’s a heck of a player. We all know that.”
And after missing several tackles while allowing the Buffaloes to gain 291 yards in the first half, the Huskies’ defense tightened up and allowed only a field goal after halftime.
Exactly one minute after Pettis’ touchdown catch, junior linebacker Travis Feeney intercepted a pass Liufau threw directly to him and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown to put the Huskies ahead by eight points.
Their offense was done scoring. But Pettis added the game’s final score by returning a punt 87 yards for a touchdown, the Huskies’ first punt return for a score since Charles Frederick did it in 2003.
That play the Huskies to win comfortably, though they’ll likely leave Boulder thinking they should have scored 50 points. Senior receiver DiAndre Campbell lost a fumble at the 1-yard line midway through the first quarter, and Miles fumbled away a shotgun snap at Colorado’s 10-yard line in the first half.
He also botched a handoff to Thompson at Colorado’s 32-yard line that wound up a turnover.
“We didn’t tackle well enough,” Petersen said. “We didn’t protect the ball enough early on. But I am proud of how these guys rallied and played hard for the whole game.”
Especially Thompson, who looked on Saturday like a full-time Pac-12 running back.
“Some of those runs he makes, it’s not like everyone’s blocked,” offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “He’s just making some guys miss, and create. It just give us such a lift when we can have an explosive runner like that.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple