Something happened at halftime of Washington’s 51-27 victory over Arizona last week.
It was like a switch flipped. All of a sudden a struggling offense — one that couldn’t reach the end zone even after starting a drive from inside the Wildcats’ 10-yard line — looked nearly unstoppable. After the game, UW’s players and coaches said the difference wasn’t anything major. There was no magic.
It all just came down to execution.
Going into the break, the Huskies hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown in five quarters, stretching back to the 23-13 loss to Stanford on Oct. 5. But as soon as tight end Jack Westover caught a 3-yard pass from quarterback Jacob Eason at the start of the third quarter against the Wildcats, UW hit its stride. The Huskies finished with five offensive touchdowns and scored 38 points in the second half.
“The first half we felt it was an execution thing,” offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan reiterated after practice on Wednesday. “I just wanted to be patient with it.”
Now, UW is hoping that second-half performance will carry over into Saturday’s game against No. 12 Oregon, which has one of college football’s top defenses. The Ducks rank first in the Pac-12 and third in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 8.7 points per game. They’re also eighth nationally in yards allowed per game, averaging 267.7.
Since a season-opening 27-21 loss to Auburn, Oregon hasn’t allowed any opponent to score more than seven points. Only Cal, which the Ducks topped 17-7, has scored a touchdown.
“I think they play really well together,” Eason said. “They’re fast, physical group from their d-line to their linebackers to their DBs. They all play fast and hard together. They rally to the ball well. Their DBs play tight in coverage.”
Said Hamdan: “It really starts with their back end. These guys play everything tight. No easy throws. They’re in your face. They’ll play physical press coverage and not need a bunch of guys in coverage. I think they feel really comfortable in man situations and allows for more rushes on the quarterback.”
Oregon is allowing 160.2 passing yards per game and has 12 interceptions on the season, which is tied for second nationally. The Huskies average 423.1 yards per game and have the No. 7 total offense in Pac-12. So while UW found an offensive rhythm in the second half against Arizona, it will need a more consistent performance against the Ducks.
That could start with two things the Huskies leaned on last week: the running game and freshman wide receiver Puka Nacua.
Heading into the game, both Hamdan and head coach Chris Petersen said UW needed to lean on its strengths offensively. That mostly meant controlling the game up front and establishing the run game. The Huskies did that, especially in the second half. As a result, they finished with 45 rushing attempts for 227 yards and three touchdowns.
Both Sean McGrew and Salvon Ahmed nearly finished with more than 100 yards. McGrew had 13 carries for 106 yards while Ahmed had 23 carries for 95 yards and three touchdowns.
“I thought Sean McGrew ran well again,” Petersen said. “I thought Salvon was solid as well. But there was one play … we had an assignment error and there were two guys who hit Sean at the line of scrimmage and he somehow split them and fell forward. To me, that was one of the more impressive runs I’ve seen in a long time. That was awesome. Like we’ve said for a long time, I think he’s got good vision, he’s slippery through there, and I think he’s playing at a nice level for us.”
Even without injured redshirt freshman Richard Newton, who in just six games had proved himself to be a key piece of UW’s offense, the Huskies were able to dominate on the ground. Oregon is slightly weaker against the run, but not by much. The Ducks allow 107.5 yards per game, which ranks third in the conference.
“It was good to create some explosive runs,” Hamdan said of last week’s performance, “and for us, when we can create the explosives on the outside it balances things out and makes it a lot better.”
UW has lacked those explosive plays — especially through the air — for most of the season. But as they established the run against Arizona, the Huskies were also able to complete some of those big-yardage plays. Hamdan said this week that UW wants to spotlight the receivers four or five times a game. That hasn’t always happened.
But when it did happen against Arizona, the target was often Nacua. The four-star recruit finished with three receptions for 97 yards. All three of his receptions went for at least 20 yards.
“He’s one of those guys that have kind of been in the shadows all year, but he’s been working hard and doing his thing out there slowly and surely and putting things on display Saturday,” Eason said. “We’re excited to see him kind of emerging, and we’re definitely going to try and get him the ball in every way we can.”
Nacua’s most impressive play a 49-yard reception in the fourth quarter. After leaping along the left sideline to haul in the pass in traffic, Nacua turned and dragged Arizona defensive back Christian Roland-Wallace behind him before several yards before he was brought down. It was exactly the kind of moment many envisioned when the athletic, 6-foot-1 receiver signed with the Huskies.
“One of the things I enjoy most about Puka is really the energy that he brings,” Petersen said. “You see it in making plays, and that’s awesome. But he’s a really great energy guy since he’s been here. He’s really good in the locker room.
“For a freshman, to feel him like we do is great. Now it’s awesome that we’re getting him more involved and he’s making plays. He was a guy that sparked so much of it.”