A punt return in football is like a triple in baseball: As it builds, it’s the most exhilarating single play in the game. Then when the third base coach waves the hitter home . . . well, it looks a lot like what Dante Pettis was doing in the Husky Stadium end zone Saturday night after he broke the NCAA career record.
Someone asked the University of Washington standout if the windmill-like gesture after his 64-yard punt-return touchdown was him playing air guitar.
“No,” he said, grinning. “That was my dad, waving people home.”
He was tying up a big week in the Pettis family. His dad, Gary, the third base coach of the Houston Astros and a longtime major leaguer, won a World Series ring Wednesday. Five days later, his son became the best punt returner in college history when he ripped the competitive heart out of the Oregon Ducks.
The swivel-hipped senior whipped through three would-be tacklers in the second quarter for his ninth career return score and a 10-3 lead on the way to a 38-3 rout of the Oregon Ducks, the Huskies’ most complete game of the season.
So did you one-up the old man, Dante?
“I don’t know how you can one-up a World Series win,” he said. “I don’t know which is better.
“I’ll take both.”
Unless the NCAA declares it an impermissible benefit for a student-athlete, he should be entitled.
Spectacular as it was, the return may have been only the second-best maneuver of his week. He worked up the guts Monday to ask coach Chris Petersen for permission to fly Tuesday to Los Angeles for game six of the Series.
“He said yeah, just don’t miss practice,” Pettis said, seemingly a little surprised. “It was a quick trip.”
Pettis said he reached LAX around 3 p.m. for the 5 p.m. game, and was on a flight back to Seattle about 11 p.m. after the Dodgers’ win forced a seventh game. He watched the clincher in his room at a home he shares with his sister, a celebration that he said included “a lot of running around.”
The Ducks are sorry he didn’t tire himself out.
Besides the return, he caught a 47-yard pass from Jake Browning for another touchdown, part of four catches for 87 yards that led the Huskies.
It was part of a remarkable series of explosive plays that shredded the Ducks, who were supposed to have worked up a mad-on after the 70-21 humiliation by the Huskies a year ago in Eugene. The rage peaked at a 3-0 lead.
The Huskies’ touchdowns came on plays of 64, 34, 47, 31, and 58 yards. It looked a lot like the ordnance the Chip Kelly-coached Ducks dropped on the Huskies during a 12-game winning streak that scorched the purple souls. They now have back two games in a row.
“We’ve had trouble getting the offense going, so the punt return is an extra opportunity,” Pettis said. “November is when you want everything to come together.”
On a brutal 40-degree night with steady showers that came close to snow, the Huskies kept the fuse lit all evening. A week after rushing for 333 yards against UCLA, they ran for 247 yards on 39 plays, a 6.3 yard average. RB Myles Gaskin had 123 yards on 17 carries and freshman Salvon Ahmed had 84 on six carries.
“Everyone knows that creating explosive plays and stopping explosive plays is a huge indicator of who is going to win the game,” Petersen said. “It might be more of an indicator stat-wise than even turnovers.
“We don’t have things dialed up each game, but it comes down to really good throws or really good blocks. When you can get those explosive plays, it changes the game for you.”
Especially when the defense allows the foe no air.
The Ducks were formidable on the ground, piling up 247 yards, 131 from future NFL stud RB Royce Freeman. But operating behind freshman backup QB Braxton Burmeister — injured starter Justin Herbert, despite stories during the week that he would return, didn’t play a down — the Ducks completed a pathetic seven of 13 passes for 31 yards, with a long of nine yards.
The Huskies’ defense picked up a fumble, an interception and a stop on downs to humble the 5-5 Ducks for a second year.
But Pettis’s career feat was the post-game buzz.
“He’s really a deceptive guy, even as a receiver,” Petersen said. He’s a long-strider that has tremendous suddenness to him. With the ground he covers with those long strides, you don’t think he can stop and start. He can. He’s really deceiving.”
At 8-1 after a pitching a complete game, there’s not much deception about the Huskies. For the first time in conference play, they look like a team that can bring home another championship for the Pettis mantel.