John McGrath

John McGrath: UW’s Shaq Thompson has first of many ‘career days’

Shaq Thompson scored two touchdowns for the Washington Huskies on Saturday, which should be no surprise to anybody familiar with the dazzling moves he showed as an all-purpose electro-back in high school.

But the touchdowns Thompson produced during Washington’s 44-19 victory over Illinois were not on offensive plays specifically designed for him. They were the work of a linebacker with an intuitive sense for the ball — and what to do with the ball once he gets it.

“His ability to make things happen with a ball in his hands,” said Huskies defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, “is awesome.”

The Huskies didn’t need Thompson to dominate Saturday. Unlike Vernon Adams, Jr., the Eastern Washington quarterback who threw an array of pinpoint passes on the run last week, Illinois’ Wes Lunt operated out of a pocket that played to the defense’s strengths. The UW offense, meanwhile, controlled the clock with a balanced attack more efficient than spectacular.

Four Huskies ran for at least 40 yards, and four receivers caught a pass 25 yards or longer. The issue never was in doubt, and yet Thompson still managed to steal the show.

With Washington leading, 14-3, midway through the first quarter, Lunt threw a pass that Thompson picked off at the Fighting Illini 26 and returned to the end zone. A few minutes later, after Dwayne Washington’s rushing touchdown all but put the game out of reach, Thompson retrieved Lunt’s fumble and scored on a 52-yard return.

“That’s a career type of day for some people,” said Kwiatkowski, a former defensive lineman and Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year who can recall picking off three passes while at Boise State.

But he never scored a touchdown. For that matter, it’s almost certain no Huskies player has converted an interception and a fumble into touchdowns on the same afternoon.

“We looked, and looked, and couldn’t find anybody who’s done that,” said Jeff Bechtold, Washington’s Sports Information Director for football.

If Thompson’s performance was unprecedented in the 125-year history of UW football, the achievement didn’t seem to impress the low-key junior from Sacramento, California.

He pointed out that the pick was a group effort — Lunt, under pressure, was hit high and low simultaneously as he released the ball — and how the fumble couldn’t have been returned without defensive end Andrew Hudson and linebacker John Timo forcing Lunt to cough up the ball.

When he saw the ball on the ground, Thompson didn’t hesitate on what to do.

“You’ve gotta score,” he said. “That was my first thought: Just score.”

Regarding fumbles, by the way, the Huskies coaches extol a philosophy — standard nowadays — of maximizing the turnover, instead of simply falling on the ball.

“If there’s not a lot of traffic around the ball,” said Kwiatkowski, “we want the guys go to scoop and score. Defensively, our job is getting the ball back and scoring. Shaq made it look real easy.”

Thompson made it look easy last week, too, when he was used for one series as a running back and scored a 57-yard touchdown on the third of his three carries. He got another series on offense against the Illini, first drive of the second half, and sprang for a 13-yard gain that had the look of something more significant when he lost his footing.

“I thought,” he said, “I was free.”

So did everybody else who has come to consider a linebacker, listed at 6-feet-1 and 228 pounds, as the Huskies’ version of the Seahawks’ Percy Harvin.

“I enjoy watching him play,” head coach Chris Petersen said of Thompson. “I haven’t been around him in game situations a whole lot — just spring ball, fall camp, and three games. He’s just a player. You put him on offense, and he does some good things. He’s good on special teams. And then he creates his own offense on defense.”

Two touchdowns on turnover returns is, by any definition, a career day. It wasn’t Shaq Thompson’s first, and it won’t be his last.