Whether the Washington Huskies truly justify the hype lavished upon them this offseason — the No. 14 national ranking, the speculation that they could compete for a Pac-12 title — ultimately will be determined against opponents far better than Rutgers.
Opponents far, far better than Rutgers.
But what the Huskies did to the Scarlet Knights on Saturday afternoon at Husky Stadium will do little to dissuade those who believe UW to be nearing the threshold of greatness.
The weather was mostly gray and the crowd was so-so. The Huskies were not. They led 24-0 at the end of the first quarter, led 34-3 at halftime and eventually cruised to a dominant 48-13 victory in their season opener before an announced crowd of 58,640.
“It was good to get out of the gate fast,” UW coach Chris Petersen said, “especially when there are so many unknowns.”
Still unknown, of course, is how Washington might fare against a more proven opponent, one that wasn’t picked by media members to finish last in its division, or one that isn’t breaking in a first-year coaching staff.
Against inferior competition, though, the Huskies rolled in ideal fashion. And they rolled early, thanks to their unforgiving defense, one of the finest games in the career of sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, and an emphatic return to action by their fastest player: junior receiver John Ross III.
Browning completed 18 of 27 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns. All three came in the first quarter. The first was a 43-yard toss to sophomore receiver and former Federal Way High star Chico McClatcher, who motioned out of the backfield and found himself covered by a reserve linebacker. The second was a 38-yard pass to Ross up the right sideline. The third was a 50-yard pass to Ross up the middle of the field that gave the Huskies a 24-0 lead.
Browning emphasized improvement on deep passes this offseason.
“The smallest detail can make the difference,” Browning said. “It was nice to get that going, and obviously Ross helps with that.”
In between, the Huskies defense hassled Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano for three sacks and thwarted the Scarlet Knights’ rushing attack. Rutgers averaged 2.3 yards per rush in the first half, and gained 15 yards on its first nine carries.
“When you get three turnovers and do a pretty good job keeping them in check for most of the game,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said, “it’s a good start, for sure.”
Ross, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, looked fine. He caught five passes for 90 yards and the two scores, and returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown late in the first half. It was the fourth kick-return touchdown of his career, which set a UW record, and the 10th touchdown of his career that covered 50 or more yards.
“Just to know that they still care about me, and they work hard alongside of me and have faith in me,” Ross said of playing with his teammates again, “that’s all that really matters, and all I care about.”
UW’s other return specialist, junior receiver Dante Pettis, added a touchdown of his own on a 68-yard punt return in the third quarter, the fourth punt-return score of his career. That ties a UW record.
The Huskies outgained Rutgers 323 yards to 117 in the first half, and ultimately held the Scarlet Knights to 3.5 yards per play. Junior linebacker Keishawn Bierria led the team with 12 tackles, and forced a fumble by Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano that led to UW’s second score, a 45-yard field goal by Cameron Van Winkle midway through the first quarter.
K.J. Carta-Samuels, UW’s second-string quarterback, threw the first touchdown pass of his career late in the third quarter, a 4-yard toss to redshirt freshman Andre Baccellia that put the Huskies ahead 48-3. The pass came one play after senior safety Brandon Beaver intercepted a pass by Laviano and returned it 46 yards.
The only downside for the Huskies: They didn’t run the ball particularly well. Star tailback Myles Gaskin finished with 57 yards on 15 carries, and the Huskies averaged 3 yards per rush.
All things considered, that is a minor nit to pick.
“There’s definitely a lot to clean up when you start looking at the whole picture,” UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “But we were happy with the start.”