Having already lost a game to Montana for the first time in 100 years, the Huskies found themselves down 13-0 at the half Friday night in Tucson to a team with the college nation’s longest losing streak (18 games).
Getting beat by Arizona might be a 200-year loss.
So they did what all desperate teams do when they sense the season breaking apart — they deployed the fat-guy interception.
The weapon is rarely used. But after that wretched first half of 65 yards total offense, options were few.
Tuli Letuligasenoa, a defensive lineman as big as his name, disrupted a Wildcats screen pass with a shocking fourth-quarter pick that set up Washington’s second touchdown in a 21-16 triumph (box) that rescued the Huskies from a second national embarrassment.
A loss to the winless Wildcats, perhaps the worst team in the Power 5 conferences, who were missing to injury their top two quarterbacks, top two running backs and a starting center, would have torpedoed what remained of coach Jimmy Lake’s tattered credibility in his second year at the UW football helm.
No wonder Lake gave him a game ball.
“Tuli just steps up to the plate and makes a huge play for our defense,” said Lake, amazed as everyone else the big man got his mitts on a poorly thrown ball from freshman QB Will Plummer at the Washington 29-yard line with 13 minutes left in the game.
“When I first caught it, I didn’t even think I had it in my hands until I looked down and everybody kept hitting me,” Letuligasenoa (6-2, 300 pounds) said. “I’m like, ‘Dang, I really got this.’”
Not only did the turnover thwart a drive while trailing 16-7, the offense took inspiration and went wild, scoring in just four plays, the final a nine-yard run by little-used RB Cam Davis. After an Arizona three-and-out, a revived QB Dylan Morris needed just eight plays to travel 82 yards, throwing what became the game-winner to Rome Odunze with 6:44 left.
“It’s crazy down to the desert,”Lake said. “It seems like every year since I’ve been coming down shere in 2014, it has just been a chaotic game. We just added to the pile here in 2021.”
Pile was also an expression that came to mind when assessing the situation had the Huskies left the desert 2-5 instead of 3-4.
First, there was a Race Porter punt blocked to set up the Wildcats’ first score, a field goal.
Then there was a scary moment when DB Alex Cook was taken to a local hospital taped to a backboard after a first-half tackle left him almost motionless on the field for several minutes. Lake reported that the junior starter from Sacramento had movement in all limbs and was expected to join the team for the flight back to Seattle.
Then there were numerous unannounced absences due to injuries: LT Jaxson Kirkland, RB Richard Newton, LB Eddie Ulofoshio, CB Cam Williams and DT Sam Taimani.
And then there were the continuing failures to improve matters with the two lines.
Despite knowing Arizona had almost no passing game, UW defenders still gave up 218 rushing yards in 40 carries. On offense, the Huskies ran a nearly equal amount (38), but gained only 88 yards and allowed Morris to be sacked four times. The first one was harsh enough to bloody his nose and force him from the game, and allow in touted freshman Sam Huard for next series that produced little.
Morris returned and finished with 217 yards and two touchdowns among 13 completions in 21 attempts — and importantly, no interceptions after leading the Pac-12 with eight entering the weekend. Most noteworthy were his linkups with junior WR Terrell Bynum — 143 yards on five catches, including a pair of 51-yarders as well as a 16-yard TD reception on the first possession of the second half that finally thawed the offense’s deep freeze.
He got a game ball from Lake too. The TD catch took a few moments to discern who won the end zone hand fight with an Arizona defender.
“I wouldn’t let him take it away,” Bynum said. “I’d be embarrassed.”
Speaking of embarrassment, the Huskies could have filled Lake Washington’s basin full of shame had they lost to a team that had been averaging 14 points a game, Arizona’s fewest since 1965, and was defeated last week 34-0 to a weak Colorado team.
Instead, thanks in part to the freakish role of Tuli the Taker, Lake has the first road win of his 11-game head coaching career. It was another one-score Pac-12 decision, and even less impressive than UW’s other conference win, in OT over lowly Cal.
Now that the Huskies have used up their allotment of fat-guy interceptions, it will be fascinating to see what other trickerations will be deployed to distract from the truth of their mediocrity.