Rarely has the University of Washington traveled so far to play a football game. So perhaps there should be little surprise they seemed Friday night ready in the season opener to fall off the edge of the earth, right there in Piscataway, N.J.
At times out-muscled and often underwhelming, the awkward Huskies finally cobbled together their dignity for a 30-14, season-opening win (box) over a much more resolute Rutgers team than the one they pasted a year ago in Seattle, 48-13.
Early, the Huskies were nowhere near the soaring expectations laid out for 2017 by media and fans — ranked eighth in the Associated Press poll, a popular bet for a return to the playoffs, and as deep as any team in the country, with one of the nation’s softest schedules.
But coach Chris Petersen was having none of the flowery plaudits. Monday afternoon at his first seasonal presser, Petersen told reporters essentially to talk to the hand.
“The expectations going into this game is just that we’ll play hard, and it’s going to be a hard-fought game that’s going to go down to the fourth quarter,” he said. “That’s the expectations that these kids need to be focused on. Nothing else. Not what anybody else on the outside is saying.
“(Rutgers) is much improved. We’ve got to go across the country . . . completely different team, completely different environment.”
Mostly, he was right. Entering the fourth quarter, the Huskies, 30-point favorites, were up 20-7, a lead largely due to a spectacular, 61-yard punt return for a touchdown by WR Dante Pettis, who began the return with a muffed catch attempt.
The game was treacherous because the Big Ten Conference hosts at times dominated play on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The big guys allowed the Scarlet Knights to control possession for 38 minutes, and out-rush the Huskies 131 yards to 84.
“They were more physical than us in the run game,” Petersen told KOMO radio post-game. “They ran it better than we did.
“It’s a physical game for 60 minutes and we (no longer) practice that. We need to figure out what it feels like after a long, long time off. It was good to get that first one.”
The physical nature of the game played out on the frame of QB Jake Browning, who was hit hard on multiple occasions, had two passes batted down at the line and finished with a modest 17 completions in 30 attempts for 284 yards, but only a single long TD drive.
The offense’s meager three points in the first half was mostly because the experienced O-line, with a combined 97 starts among the starting five, didn’t look experienced. Going up-tempo in the second half seemed to generate the efficiency that was a 2016 hallmark.
“I think we can play better in our offensive line,” Petersen said. “Up-tempo is how we like our offense to be. We can do both, but uptempo gives us the best chance.
“Give Rutgers credit — they were more physical than we were.”
Much of the credit can go to DE Kemoko Turay, a 6-5, 252-pound, fifth-year defensive tackle from nearby Newark who sat out last year’s meeting. The Huskies had no answers for his disruptions of both the passing game and the running game.
“He hadn’t played in so long, it was hard to get tape on him,” Petersen said. “He’s a long guy with a lot of quick-twitch. He was a problem for us.”
After giving up a touchdown on the opening series, the Huskies’ defense, missing MLB Azeem Victor, sitting out a one-game suspension for violating team rules, picked up the pressure. It also answered some questions about the remade secondary.
In his first start, highly touted redshirt freshman CB Byron Murphy ended two Rutgers series with interceptions. Also in his first start, junior CB Jordan Miller defended well, and sophomore nickel back Myles Bryant perpetually was around the ball with seven tackles and two passes defensed.
But the game turned on special teams. Besides Pettis’s punt return, senior PK Tristan Vizcaino hit all three field goal attempts. The new punter from Australia, Joel Whitford, dropped two inside the 2-yard line, where they were downed by Murphy.
“Nice pitching wedge,” Petersen said.
In pre-game warm-ups, Petersen watched Rutgers’ Michael Cintron boom several punts, and had an inkling.
“We love to see a big-legged punter in warmups,” he said. “Those (long punts) are hard to cover. I said to Dante, ‘I think you’ll get a chance tonight.’ He capitalized.
“Dante’s getting so good that (the muff) is part of his tricks. He fumbles, makes them think they have a chance, and he runs by them.”
For the sixth time in his career, a continuing school record, he capitalized with a touchdown.
It wasn’t the kind of play that bespeaks dominance. But it was the kind of football weapon that works on a night when a team leaves the knife back home while attending a knife fight.