After almost a month of dining on cupcakes, the Huskies had a hard time with a dinner of cactus Saturday night in Tucson.
Two missed field goals, a red-zone interception and four sacks of QB Jake Browning nearly wiped out months of high expectations. But due largely to an astonishing game from junior RB Lavon Coleman, ninth-ranked Washington (4-0) prevailed 35-28 in overtime over an Arizona team that nearly trap-doored the Huskies again.
Browning’s four-yard bullet to WR Dante Pettis, a pass intended for teammate WR Chico McClatcher deeper in the end zone, gave the Huskies the lead in OT. Then the defense denied the Wildcats’ remarkable sophomore backup QB, Brandon Dawkins, to preserve a much-anticipated match of unbeatens Friday on national TV when 4-0 Stanford comes to Montlake — the fourth top-10 matchup in Husky Stadium history, and the first since 1997.
The Huskies piled up 352 yards rushing, including 181 on 11 carries from Coleman, to offset assorted penalties, missed tackles, special teams errors and blown assignments from a team that apparently was a little too smug after three lopsided victories over lesser opponents.
“This is a hard league to win in and Arizona is a hard place to win,” said Chris Petersen, greatly relieved Huskies coach. “We need a month to clean this up.”
The Huskies hadn’t won since 2006 in Tucson, a place of many pratfalls for Washington. After a dominant opening drive in the second half gave UW a 21-14 lead, the next four possessions ended with a turnover on downs, an interception, a missed field goal and a punt.
Another desert whammy seemed imminent because Arizona tied the game at 21 with 4:25 left on a 66-yard drive capped by Dawkins’ two-yard TD run.
But with 3:25 remaining, Coleman, who supplanted starter Myles Gaskin in the late going, broke free on a 55-yard romp for a 28-21 lead. Dawkins responded with the play of the game.
On second down and 25 at the Arizona 15, Dawkins, a 6-3, 210-pound speedster making his third collegiate start, somehow backpedaled out of a sure sack by Huskies strongman Vita Vea. That bought enough time to find WR Shun Brown behind Washington’s secondary for a 54-yard completion. Four plays later, the game was tied at 28 and headed to OT.
“It was an amazing play by him,” Petersen said. “I don’t know how he got out of Vita’s big, strong arms, I don’t know too many who can do that.
“The frustrating thing by us was we came out of coverage, and we never do that. We have to stay in coverage. That was an error on our part and they capitalized.”
Th guilty party was CB Budda Baker, who earlier missed open-field tackles on consecutive plays. The preseason All-America pick had 10 tackles, but has had more than his share of missed assignments.
On the Huskies’ possession in extras, Coleman covered a multitude of sins with a startling 24-yard dash to the one-yard line. He appeared to have a leg injury and came out. Gaskin, who finished with 85 yards in 24 carries, was knocked back for a three-yard loss. Then a low-percentage pass play, a fade to John Ross, went out of bounds.
Suddenly it was third down, and the most important play of the season was upon Browning. He responded by seeking out McClatcher and finding Pettis for the go-ahead TD. When the Wildcats were stymied on their OT possession by a 4th-and-10 incompletion, the Huskies had survived their first Pac-12 Conference game and first road test. Barely.
“A lot of people were asking, ‘What happens when adversity comes?'” Browning said of UW’s soft schedule. “We showed them.”
Browning completed 14 of 21 passes for 160 yards and two TDs. More impressively, he had 11 carries and 48 yards rushing, although sacks reduced the total. Most impressive of all, on the 32-yard reverse play to Ross that resulted in Washington’s first touchdown, Browning threw the block on a 280-pound lineman that sprung Ross.
“It’s not like I really blocked him,” Browning said. “I just ran into him.”
It was part of a concerted effort by the Huskies to wear down the smaller, faster Wildcats.
“We did want to make this physical,” Petersen said. “That was the message all week long. We got that accomplished.”
Work on the power game was probably aimed as much at the Stanford game as the Wildcats. The Cardinal loves to mash. And the Huskies get only four days to clean up a month’s worth of mess.