How wild is the story of running back Joe Williams’ post-retirement return to the Utah Utes football team?
Wild enough that it actually inspired a joke this week from Washington Huskies coach Chris Petersen, who on Monday was extolling the virtues of keeping players fresh when someone asked about Williams’ comeback.
“You want to talk about reps and staying fresh for the season,” Petersen cracked. “It worked out pretty good.”
It did. Williams decided to retire after the second week of the season, telling reporters at the time that “mentally and physically, I’m not at the point where I can compete at the level I need to for the team and everybody,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
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Utah coaches said there were no hard feelings and wished him well. But injuries destroyed the Utes’ depth at running back – four contributors have been injured since Williams announced his retirement – so coach Kyle Whittingham asked Williams if he wanted to return.
He did, telling reporters that he felt he needed to come back to help the team. So he began practicing again the week of Utah’s Oct. 15 game at Oregon State, and suited up that Saturday against the Beavers.
Then he rushed for 179 yards and a touchdown in a 19-14 Utah victory. Then he rushed for 332 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-45 Utah victory at UCLA, and his un-retirement became one of the wackiest stories of this college football season.
“He’s pretty explosive coming out that backfield,” said UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria. “They’ve really got some good inside running plays, and they’ve got a physical front five, and we’re going to come at them with our own type of mindset and type of gameplan.”
A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Williams began his collegiate career at Connecticut, transferred to ASA College in Brooklyn and then transferred to Utah for the 2015 season.
He rushed for 477 yards and three touchdowns last season, and entered 2016 as the team’s starting running back. His two performances since un-retiring represent the best and third-best single-game rushing totals of his career.
Against UCLA, Williams averaged 11.4 yards per carry, and scored touchdowns on runs of 43, 64 and 55 yards.
“That’s a big thing for this week,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “We cannot let this guy … he’s going to get yards, he’s going to make plays. We’ve got to do a good job of keeping him in the chute and not giving up the long ball, whether it’s in the run game or the pass game.”
As a team, Utah (7-1, 4-1 in Pac-12) ranks 55th nationally with 4.62 yards per rush, though the Utes have averaged 5.8 in the two games since Williams returned.
The Huskies allow 3.72 yards per rush, which ranks third in the Pac-12 and 35th nationally.
“There’s no secrets to what they’re doing,” Kwiatkowski said. “They’re just executing at a high level, and the running back’s doing a good job finding space and then if someone’s not there making the tackle, he’s taking it to the house.”
EXTRA POINTS: Bovada, a sports betting website, released new national championship and Heisman Trophy odds on Tuesday. The Huskies are given 9-to-1 odds to win the national title, tied for fifth-best on the board, and sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is given 10-to-1 odds to win the Heisman, fourth-best odds on the board. … Kwiatkowski praised the perseverance of fourth-year junior defensive end Connor O’Brien, who is filling in for injured starter Joe Mathis. O’Brien had UW’s only sack during last week’s 41-17 victory over Oregon State. “He’s physical, plays hard and plays with that great motor, Kwiatkowski said. “He’s never going to go away. A lot of the plays that he makes are effort plays.”