Chris Petersen’s first season as the Washington Huskies football coach was mostly mediocre.
But if the Huskies could have been even that good in the first half of Friday night’s Cactus Bowl, they might be celebrating their ninth victory.
Instead they were mostly awful in the first 30 minutes of their season finale against Oklahoma State at Sun Devil Stadium, putting forth a dud of a performance that a more inspired effort in the second half could not conceal in a 30-22 defeat before an announced crowd of 35,409.
Washington finishes the season with an 8-6 record.
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The Cowboys (7-6) barely achieved bowl eligibility, but they played like the superior team in every phase of the game. They were missing their most dynamic offensive player, Tyreek Hill, who was dismissed from the team on Dec. 12. They were starting a true freshman at quarterback. They entered the game ranked 97th nationally in total defense.
And for a half, they dominated.
Mason Rudolph, making his third career start at quarterback, sliced UW’s young secondary for 299 yards on 17 of 26 passing and two touchdowns — he was 11 of 17 for 198 yards in the first half — including a wide-open, 28-yard toss to James Washington in the first quarter and a 47-yard pass to Brandon Sheperd that gave OSU a 24-0 lead with 48 seconds left in the first half.
Rudolph even caught a pass on a throwback from Sheperd, a 22-yard gain that set up the Cowboys’ second touchdown.
Meanwhile, the Huskies offense looked as if it hadn’t spent any of the last five weeks preparing for this game. They didn’t attain a first down until midway through the second quarter, and scored zero points off of the two turnovers forced by the Huskies defense — including a fumble recovered at OSU’s 28-yard line following a strip-sack by All-American outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha. Sophomore kicker Cameron Van Winkle hit a 43-yard field goal try off the left upright four plays later.
After halftime, though, the Huskies looked like a different team. Third-year sophomore quarterback Cyler Miles, ineffective in the first half, began the second by leading a seven-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that Jaydon Mickens capped with a 31-yard touchdown run on a reverse.
But even when the Huskies figured out how to slow OSU’s offense, they couldn’t get out of their own way. A Cowboys punt with 3:02 left in the third quarter hit Huskies linebacker John Timu and was recovered by OSU at UW’s 15-yard line. That gaffe was converted into a field goal that gave the Cowboys a 27-7 lead.
Still, the Huskies found a way to stay in the game, as sophomore cornerback John Ross III returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown — his second such score of this season and third of his career.
Washington got the ball back, trailing by 13 points, with 13:28 left in the game and moved it to OSU’s 37-yard line before Miles’ scrambled attempt on fourth-and-6 came up two yards short of a first down.
OSU took advantage by driving to UW’s 17-yard line and tacking on a 34-yard field goal to make it 30-14 with 5:54 to play.
That felt like the deciding blow. But UW made it interesting by driving 67 yards in 2 minutes and 19 seconds, Miles tossing a 16-yard touchdown pass to Mickens with 3:29 to play before tacking on a successful two-point conversion on a swing pass to tailback Deontae Cooper.
UW had OSU facing a third-and-2 on its next possession with 3:11 to play, but Rudolph completed a pass to 300-pound defensive tackle James Castleman — who bulled his way for a 1-yard touchdown run in the first half — and he trucked 48 yards with it to give the Cowboys a new set of downs at UW’s 17-yard line.
And still, the Cowboys could not ice the game. Ben Grogan missed a 27-yard field goal attempt with 43 seconds left, giving the Huskies at least a small chance to drive the length of the field and tie the game.
But Miles threw a desperation interception with five seconds left, and that, finally, was that. He finished 25 of 38 passing for 268 yards.
The Huskies played without fourth-year junior offensive guard Dexter Charles, who did not make the trip due to an academic issue. Siosifa Tufunga started in his place.
Washington begins the 2015 season on either Thursday, Sept. 3 or Friday, Sept. 4 at Boise State, where Petersen posted a 92-12 record as head coach from 2006-13.
But after one year at Washington, he’s 8-6 and leaving Huskies fans longing for better come September.