There was no rousing speech at halftime, no desperate attempts at inspiration. The coaches talked, of course. Some players did, too. But what Washington quickly learned was this: Everything that needed said really went without saying.
It wasn’t necessary for the Huskies’ offense to rehash the first-half struggles during Saturday’s 51-27 victory over Arizona. The problems were as familiar as they were frustrating — the stalled drives in the red zone, the dropped passes, the penalties.
UW’s defense started the game like it took last week’s loss to Stanford as a personal affront. The Huskies made plays on special teams, too. But then the offense would take the field, and it looked lethargic and out of sorts.
When Levi Onwuzurike blocked Arizona’s first punt to give UW the ball at the Wildcats’ 34 yard line, the offense managed to gain just 9 yards before settling for a field goal. And later in the first quarter, when a fumble on a punt return set the Huskies up at Arizona’s 8-yard line, UW ran three plays and took a delay of game penalty before Peyton Henry trotted out to kick a second field goal.
The Huskies started two drives inside Arizona territory, and had just six points to show for it.
“We couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm,” head coach Chris Petersen said afterward. “We had a penalty, a false start, not making a play. We knew if we could just stay on the field a little bit, we could get something going.”
UW’s defense wilted in the second quarter as Arizona scored 14 straight points to take a 17-14 lead into the break. The Huskies, it seemed, were on the verge of collapse.
But a shift happened in that locker room. Not because of a dramatic scene, but a quiet understanding: Something had to change. Right then. If it didn’t, maybe there wouldn’t be anything left to save.
“There wasn’t a lot to be said, but there was a lot to still do,” said running back Salvon Ahmed. “I think we knew that as a team. We kind of went out there, had a plan and executed.”
Execution. When asked about the drastic difference between halves — a 182-yard difference, to be exact — that was the word that came up over and over again.
“We knew the plays were there to make,” Petersen said. “We thought we could run the ball. As long as we could get the play started, we could run the ball and then we could throw it downfield a little bit. We just needed to convert a few first downs and then build some confidence like, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’”
Yeah, they really could.
The Huskies’ second-half drive chart was nearly perfect: Touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown. It was efficient, relentless, electric. Everything the first half wasn’t.
“We knew we needed to help out our defense,” said running back Sean McGrew, who finished with game-high 106 yards on 13 carries. “They came out and were making plays. They were playing extremely well.
“As an offense, when you see and you go out on the field and you’re not executing, it’s aggravating. You know you’ve got to pick it up. We went into halftime and picked up the energy. We knew we had to come out and score as soon as we got back on the field and I think we just kept it going throughout the game.”
The Huskies opened the third quarter with 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jacob Eason to tight end Jack Westover. The series was highlighted by a 28-yard reception from freshman wide receiver Puka Nacua, who finished with a career-high three receptions for 97 yards.
After that, Ahmed scored his first touchdown, this one from 4 yards out.
Enter sparingly-used receiver Jordan Chin, who hauled in a 39-yard touchdown pass to move UW back into Wildcat territory. Eason then connected with senior wide receiver Aaron Fuller, who leaned forward to catch the 22-yard fade along the sideline before half-sliding, half-stumbling into the end zone.
Then Ahmed scored on a 3-yard run.
Then Peyton Henry hit a 27-yard field goal.
And then Ahmed reached the end zone from 10 yards out for his third and final touchdown of the night. He had 23 carries for 95 yards.
“I think as an offense we know that we’re going to get the opportunities if we keep swinging,” McGrew said. “We knew that things were just going to start falling our way … if we just kept swinging and showed a sense of urgency and I think it showed.”
Arizona scored after the break, too — a field goal early in the fourth quarter and a touchdown late. But that hardly made a dent in a second half that belonged to the Huskies. And not just the offense.
After allowing the two second-quarter touchdowns, the defense regrouped after halftime. The Wildcats entered the game averaging 221 rushing yards per game, which ranked second in the Pac-12. UW held them to 151 yards on the ground and 360 total yards.
UW’s only first-half touchdown was a defensive one. Late in the second quarter, the Huskies pressured Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, forcing him to scramble. Tate was out of options, and linebacker Brandon Wellington expected him to throw the ball away or slide. Instead, he pitched the ball backward for a fumble. As the ball rolled toward the sideline, Wellington scooped it up and ran the final 5 yards into the end zone.
Tate entered the game as Arizona’s second-leading rusher and averaging 65.3 yards per game and 7.3 yards per carry. Against the Huskies, he had eight carries for -28 yards, an average of -3.5 yards per carry. UW also held him to 13-of-25 passing for 184 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked four times.
After not recording a turnover against Stanford, UW had four against Arizona. Outside linebacker Ryan Bowman had the interception while Myles Bryant finished with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Freshman defensive back Trent McDuffie also had a fumble recovery, his second of the season. Kyler Gordon recovered a fumble on special teams.
“We just wanted to come out in the second half and just keep at it,” Wellington said. “We held them up for a good position of the time and really I felt like that gave our offense some mojo and vice versa, we were bouncing off of them so it was good.”
After the game, Petersen was asked about the offensive explosion. Was this progress in real-time? Can the Huskies carry this performance into next week’s game against No. 13 Oregon?
His answer started with four words that Husky fans would likely echo.
“I sure hope so.”
There was a scary moment in the third quarter when redshirt freshman linebacker MJ Tafisi was injured making a tackle.
Tafisi remained motionless on the field for several minutes after the hit and trainers immediately called for a backboard. With UW’s entire team gathered around him, Tafisi was eventually lifted onto the card. As he left the field, he raised his right arm to give the cheering Arizona crowd a thumbs up.
After the game, Petersen said Tafisi was taken to a local hospital for tests. Later, a university spokesman confirmed that Tafisi was able to take the team flight back to Seattle.
“I feel like the guys in the room, we have a pretty tight knit brotherhood,” Bryant said. “We understand if somebody goes down, we got to be there for him and I feel like we did our best to kind of play in the name of injury. I feel like guys just came out from that point and turned it up from there.”
Said Petersen: “I kind of felt like they almost rallied behind him. I felt like they wanted to play harder for him. I know that’s very unsettling for everybody in the stadium, certainly us and his teammates.”
Starting center Nick Harris didn’t play against Arizona for health reasons. Petersen said he’s week-to-week but added that he thinks Harris will be available against Oregon. Tucson native Matteo Mele started in Harris’ place on Saturday night. ... Defensive back Asa Turner got his first start at safety in place of fellow freshman Cameron Williams, who started the first six games of the season. ... Right guard Jaxson Kirkland was injured in the game and was replaced by Henry Bainivalu. Kirkland spent time working with the trainers on the sideline.