Chris Petersen isn’t exactly sure what the next move is.
The University of Washington football coach has seen senior Dante Pettis return a punt for a touchdown in each of the first two games, including a 69-yarder Saturday in a 63-7 victory over Montana at Husky Stadium.
And in the Huskies’ season opener at Rutgers, Pettis took one back 61 yards for a game-breaking touchdown late in the first half of a 30-14 win over the Scarlet Knights.
How will opponents adjust from here on out?
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“It’s hard not to kick it to a (returner),” Petersen said during his Monday weekly press conference. “Are you just going to kick it out of bounds? That’s hard to do and still get some distance. You get a punter that can get some hang time (on his punts), and that really helps some things. That’s what guys are going to work on — get the ball up in the air and cover.”
The early success has even Pettis scratching his head, especially after being one of six FBS players to score multiple punt-return scores a season ago.
“Coming into this year, I didn’t think that I was really going to get that many opportunities (to return punts),” Pettis said after the game Saturday. “Then after the first game, I was like, ‘I probably won’t get any more.’ And now I am like, ‘I will probably not get anymore.’
“But people keep surprising me by kicking it to me.”
As Petersen has said all along, even though Pettis has been marvelous at reading an opposing coverage team and countering with slick moves, his blocking has also been tremendous.
“Football comes down to that, winning your one-on-one battles,” Petersen said. “Byron Murphy does a great job on his gunner to slow him down so Dante can get space. ... Jordan Miller does a great job, too, of really handling his gunner. There’s no harder jobs than trying to slow down those fast guys with all that space. If they can do that, and give Dante a chance to get started, he’s usually going to do something pretty good.”
Next up is Fresno State punter Blake Cusick, who has had just four punts returned in two games this season.
This is a continuation of what the Bulldogs did in 2016 when they finished 28th in the country in punt return defense (5.2-yard per punt return average). It wasn’t even until the ninth game of the season that an opposing return logged positive punt-return yardage on Cusick.
But if Pettis can get loose on one Saturday at Husky Stadium, he could become the first UW player to even return a punt for a touchdown in three consecutive games.
“Everybody likes all the flash plays, and that’s great,” Petersen said. “They are game-changing plays, but there’s a lot of subtleties in the hidden game of special teams that creates yardage.”
Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven had 10 tackles Saturday to lead the UW for a second consecutive game. The junior had not even started a game before the season opener against Rutgers. “The game of football is going sideline to sideline, and that’s kind of Ben’s game as well,” Petersen said. “He can run those things down.” ...
More than any other opposing coach the Huskies will face this season, Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford might know the intracacies of what the team does on offense. That is because Tedford was an offensive consultant in Montlake last year. “You watch their offense, it’s very, very similar. A lot of things look a lot alike,” Petersen said. ...
Since the team was off Monday, Petersen did not have an update on the status of tight end Drew Sample (leg), who left the game in the first quarter Saturday. ... The UW-Colorado kickoff Sept. 23 has been set at 7 p.m. PST in Boulder.
UW HUSKIES OPPONENT THIS WEEK
Fresno State Bulldogs (1-1, 0-0 in MWC)
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium, Seattle, Pac-12 Network, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM
Coach: Jeff Tedford (1-1 in 1st year at Fresno State; 83-58 overall with a previous stop at Cal (2002-12).
Against the Scarlet Knights: UW leads, 2-1.
Scouting report: If this two-week stretch cannot toughen you up, nothing will. The Bulldogs lost, 41-10, last week at No. 1 Alabama. And now a week later, they will be at No. 6 Washington, another seasoned, physical national-contending hopeful. Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford knows exactly how good the Huskies are. He spent last season as an offensive consultant with the team. Tedford likely will use the same approach with quarterback Chason Virgil (37 of 63, 426 yards, two TD) against this UW defense – get the passes out quickly. Except for two bad throws, including one interception, Virgil was on point with his throws against Alabama, and he will look plenty at receiver KeeSean Johnson (15 catches in two games). Tailback DeJonte O’Neal is an intriguing multi-purpose threat, especially on special teams.
WSU COUGARS OPPONENT THIS WEEK
Oregon State Beavers (1-2, 0-0 in Pac-12 North)
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Martin Stadium, Pullman, Pac-12 Network, 710-AM
Coach: Gary Andersen (7-20 in 3rd year at Oregon State; 56-58 overall with stops at Southern Utah, Utah State and Wisconsin).
Against the Broncos: WSU leads, 49-40-3.
Scouting report: After last week’s embarrassing 48-14 loss to Minnesota, have the wheels fallen completely off the Beavers’ season? Quarterback Jake Luton (61 of 100, 674 yards, four TDs, four INT) and the offense are making too many mistakes, leading the conference with 10 turnovers. And that puts a porous defense in a bad situation. Oregon State is worst in the country in total defense (483.7 yards per game), including an average of 245.0 rushing yards. And their scoring defense (46.0 points per game) is third-worst behind Louisiana (57.0 ppg) and Tulsa (50.5).
– Todd Milles