Ahead 24-10 halfway through the third quarter in their first Pac-12 Conference game of the season, the Washington Huskies seemed poised to deliver proof at Husky Stadium that the early season embarrassments were solved.
By the end, in overtime, their harrowing 31-24 triumph (box) over the Cal Bears provided a 1-0 conference start, but little assurance that the Huskies (2-2) were more than a wobbly team in the middle of a wobbly league.
It took a long video review to establish that RB Sean McGrew crossed the goal line in Washington’s first OT possession for the winning touchdown. It didn’t take as long for UW coach Jimmy Lake to feel validation, if not vindication.
“We just continue to grind when everybody was completely negative on what was going on,” he said, “just blocking out the outside noise that that doesn’t believe in our players’ abilities, what they are able to do on the football field. Pretty awesome . . . we built tons of momentum.”
Actually, the criticism was less about the players and more about the coaching staff’s command. Losing a hundred-year game to Montana and going hapless on national TV against Michigan will do that. A big win over Sun Belt Conference victim Arkansas State cleared up nothing.
One thing was obvious Saturday, even though it has been well known since Lake arrived on campus in 2014 — he knows how to get the maximum out of his defensive backs.
Two of them basically decided the game.
“Over the years we’ve never had cover corners, guys that just cover and don’t like tackling,” Lake said. “They will not play at the University of Washington. We bring football players that are tough and physical.”
To his point: In Cal’s OT possession following the UW score, it appeared the Bears were ready to do what they had done for most of the second half — move through the Huskies defense like a thresher. In the fourth quarter, senior QB Chase Garbers, who helped lead the Bears to a late win in the memorable 2019 game interrupted for three hours by dangerous weather, was doing it again in summer-like conditions.
The Bears in the piled up 164 yards and 14 points in the final 15 minutes of regulation, and were denied a win only when a 55-yard field goal attempt failed on the final play of regulation. The chance to tie in OT in came from the two-yard line, when RB Damien Moore took a hand-off and swept right, then up.
That’s where he met sophomore CB Cameron Williams, who clobbered him so hard the ball popped free and was recovered by UW LB Ryan Bowman. The sideline victory party spilled onto the field prematurely, because the officials demanded yet another replay review. As with McGrew’s TD, the Huskies were video-validated again, and the party on the sidelines and in the stands (60,104 paid) re-commenced.
Lake said Williams had injuries to both hands that failed to stop him from delivering the game’s decisive bow.
“It was a big-time hit,” Lake said. “He’s got both hands wrapped up, like a boxer’s tape. And he rotated over, came over the top and laid his shoulder right into the running back and popped the ball out.
“Just an extraordinary play, doing what he could with the body parts that were still working.”
The other DB star was sophomore Kyler Gordon, a heralded recruit who hadn’t quite lived up the hype until Saturday. A game-long force, he had the first two interceptions of his career and 10 tackles.
He referred to a chip on his shoulder regarding Cal. In the 2019 game, it was his penalty for pass interference and subsequent allowance of a big pass play that set up the Bears’ game-winning field goal with seven seconds left in the 20-19 win.
“I knew I wanted to win this game,” he said. “I remember how it felt back then, where I felt like I I kind of lost the game, or I had a piece in it. Today I was like, you got to change that. So I’m happy.”
The win made everyone in purple happy, but in a grin sort of way, not a guffaw. After a three-and-out to start the game, Washington scored 24 points on its next four possessions, then fell silent over its next five, until the OT and its 25-yard field.
QB Dylan Morris had a big first half followed by a meager second half. Part of it was due to the absence of UW’s top three tight ends — star Cade Otton (Covid-19 protocol) and Jack Westover (unspecified injury), then Devin Culp, after a team-high five catches for 81 yards, left the game with an injury.
Since DB Trent McDuffie also didn’t play, that meant that UW played without its top defender and top offensive player (Otton). So the Huskies have some excuse for the near-squandering.
“We were missing a bunch of guys in the first game as well,” Lake said of the loss to Montana. “Now we came out with a victory. So now it looks like we did a good job, right?
“This is part of football. That’s why you got to make sure you coach up your depth and get them ready to go.”
All true. Still, the Huskies nearly blew another home game to an underdog that’s now 1-3.
The arrow is pointing in the right direction, but now the Huskies face in Corvallis an Oregon State team that Saturday beat USC in Los Angeles, 45-27, for the first time in 61 years.
Finally, we get to learn something.