As Seattle tries to return to a pre-COVID sporting existence, 9,000 people on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon attended the University of Washington football spring game. One-eighth the capacity, they sat safely distanced in clusters at Husky Stadium, except for the large gathering of students who packed together tightly in the west end zone, oblivious to the event’s mask requirements.
For two and a half hours, players ran into each other in the Purple and Gold game, which thankfully, or unfortunately, resembled any other spring football competition. Nothing much happened.
Final score: Purple 22, Gold 13.
The point-producing involved four field goals and a safety.
The longest play from scrimmage went for 22 yards on a pass from touted freshman QB Sam Huard to junior TE Devin Culp for the Gold.
Imported Texas running back Jay’Veon Sunday, after flamboyantly high-stepping through four weeks of practice to the ire of the defense, finished his Saturday showing with the most carries (12) and meekly led the Purple in rushing (22 yards) without any theatrics.
The only turnovers, an interception by CB Elijah Jackson and a fumble recovery and runback by ILB Miki Ah You, redshirt freshmen with the Purple team, went to a pair of players Huskies fans haven’t seen play before.
This was all moot compared to coach Jimmy Lake’s biggest objective, which was to re-engage the fans with his football team and continue to creatively market the program under his leadership, even during the normally blasé days of spring.
“We want our fans and everyone to see us,” Lake said, running things counter to his coaching predecessor, Chris Petersen. “We want our recruits, possible recruits, younger recruits, to be able to see us. We want to show the country that Seattle’s a football town and they love their football.”
The spring game, regardless of the limitations, had a calming effect on the players. Starting ILB Edefuan Ulofoshio, who played for the Gold, recalls the past fan-less fall season, in which he ran out of the tunnel: “It was like crickets.” He hasn’t lost sight of the fact that spring football didn’t happen last year because of COVID-19.
Saturday’s competition was a big step up for him and his teammates in a return to football normalcy.
“This was a blessing, because last year I was at home watching absolutely nothing,” Ulofoshio said. “To go out here and have the opportunity to get better with my brothers has just been great.”
Possibly the biggest spring-game development was the reappearance of hard-running junior RB Richard Newton, who piled up a game-high 49 yards rushing on eight carries and scored on an electric 15-yard run by bouncing off defenders like a pinball.
Newton, after landing last season on the Doak Walker Award watch list for the nation’s top running backs, played in two of four games during the pandemic-shortened season and was held out of the others for reasons still not clear.
“Rich came in in fantastic shape for spring football,” Lake said. “I believe Rich is on his way to do big things. He’s done big things for us, but this could be his biggest year yet.”
Sophomore Dylan Morris looked comfortable as the returning quarterback starter, completing 18 of 28 passes for 125 yards and a seven-yard TD pass to All-America tight end candidate Cade Otton.
Huard, the five-star recruit and legacy player, should have been making plans to attend his high school senior prom, but a month of college football practice seemed to wear nicely on him. He looked poised in the pocket while connecting on seven of 12 passes for 74 yards.
While this was the Huskies’ first true game-like competition to cap spring football practice in decades, play-calling was simplified to prevent any enterprising opponent from scouting the endeavor.
Nearly a dozen players were injured and unable to play, including first-team All-Pac-12 outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui (Achilles tendon surgery) and second-team All-Pac-12 cornerback Trent McDuffie (injury unknown).
Defensive players weren’t allowed to hit the quarterbacks, who wore gold jerseys while everyone else was dressed in purple, white, black and yellow shirts, signifying different position groups.
Kickoffs and punts were held without contact.
Plenty of public-address announcements boomed overhead, but music was piped in and no marching band or cheerleaders showed up.
Two boats dropped anchor outside the stadium, not dozens.
With the late great UW and NFL villain Ben Davidson unavailable to brighten up the spring football proceedings as he did for so many years, event organizers should have taken the half-dozen injured players riding scooters and held halftime races.
Lake said he hopes to build on this to the point that someday Huskies fans see it as more of a must-see event, a tradition, on the order of what Alabama and Nebraska do, creating packed houses.
Yet while everyone was outwardly pleased to see spring football resume after a year’s absence, and those 9,000 spectators felt grateful to see it in person, Lake still needs to deal with the challenges of Seattle on a sunny springtime day.
Take, for instance, that large gathering of students, huddled in the end zone, oblivious to the pandemic. They showed up in the stands around halftime to get a look at football for the first time in 17 months.
They were gone before the third quarter began.
More of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist Dan Raley’s work can be found here at si.com/maven