TUCSON, Ariz. – If you’re a fan of that purple-and-gold football team from Seattle, you should be grateful for that feeling you had in parts of the second half Saturday. It was an emotion the Husky faithful had yet to experience in 2023.
It may not have been particularly potent in this case. Hearts weren’t working an extra 30 or 40 pumps per minute. But it was there.
Washington had never given their supporters any reason for fright in the four games leading up to Saturday’s showdown with Arizona. The Dawgs were dominance personified, smashing their previous opponents by an average of 32.75 points while holding commanding halftime leads in each contest.
Top team in the country in terms of total offense and yards per play? Check. The (slight) betting favorite to win the Heisman trophy in quarterback Michael Penix Jr.? Check.
No way the Wildcats, perpetual Pac-12 also-rans, were going to pose a threat, right? Wrong.
No. 7 Washington may have come out with a 31-24 win on Saturday – a score misleadingly close given Arizona’s touchdown with 1:08 left – but it was not without stress. Whether it was a result of the Huskies’ inability to finish or the Wildcats’ inability to fold, the sold-out crowd never had a quality reason to leave.
Yes, it appeared momentarily that the Huskies were going to pull away in the second quarter – especially given that they scored on each of their first three possessions. But when they punted the ball away on their first possession of the third quarter – leading 21-10 at the time – a seed of doubt likely crept into the minds of the UW die-hards.
After all, the game probably should have been much closer than it was at the time. The Huskies nearly turned the pigskin over on their final first-half touchdown drive when tight end Jack Westover fumbled, but the ball was ruled out of bounds despite it looking as if Arizona’s Treydan Sukes recovered it. And on the Wildcats’ ensuing drive, redshirt freshman/backup quarterback Noah Fifita overthrew a wide-open Jacob Cowing on a would-be touchdown pass.
In other words, this game very easily (an admittedly overused pair of words) could have been 14-14 at the break.
That’s why the Huskies’ lead seemed tenuous when Arizona got the ball back after having its way offensively vs. Washington throughout the second quarter. The drive ended in a punt that gave Washington the ball back, but even then Washington needed a spectacular third-and-16 reception from Devin Culp – likely its sixth-best pass catcher – to eventually give the Huskies a touchdown and a 28-10 lead.
That seemed like the moment the game was sealed, even if the Wildcats did find the end zone on the next drive and got the ball back three times while down 31-17, scoring on a TD on try No. 3. But make no mistake – Saturday was a test. A scary one.
So why should Husky fans feel gratitude?
For two reasons. The first is that it’s a testament to just how good UW is. The Huskies have been spoiling their supporters over this 12-game winning streak dating to last season. Suspense in road games such as Saturday’s were a given in years past. The fact that there was surprise apprehension in Tucson – uncomfortable as it may have been – was a tribute.
The second is that this likely woke the Huskies up before their showdown with No. 9 Oregon in two weeks (one week after UW’s bye). Arizona exposed weaknesses in the Huskies’ defense by gaining 342 yards. And though UW’s offensive numbers still glistened (it finished with 363 passing yards and 474 total yards of offense) there were two fumbles in the red zone that wouldn’t likely go unpunished vs. the Ducks.
You’d probably want to win every game by 40 if you could, but do you find tests like these can be good going forward? Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer was asked.
“Yeah, there’s two pieces, right? You’re playing close games, and you know what it feels like to answer the bell and come up with a play,” he said. “And there’s also moments that we can learn from, where we missed opportunities to position ourselves with a greater difference in the score.”
Look, winning a college football game is difficult no matter how disparate the talent between two rosters may seem. Washington’s loss to lowly Arizona State last year proved as much, but we see examples of this across the college-football landscape weekly.
UW should take pride in its victory Saturday despite various miscues and shortcomings, but also know that it has plenty to work on.
For weeks it seemed the consensus was that the first test for the Huskies was going to come Oct. 14 vs. Oregon. That consensus was wrong, but that’s OK.
The Huskies and their fan base want to win the Pac-12 and make a run in the College Football Playoff. Perhaps that’s greedy, but sometimes, as they say – greed is good.
Same can be true of fear.