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Unbeaten UW Huskies utilize small ball to hold off Arizona

By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

TUCSON, Ariz. — Hours after the Mariners were eliminated from postseason play, UW didn’t bury Arizona under a barrage of Michael Penix Jr. home runs.

Small ball won the day.

Specifically, the Huskies scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions in an eventual 31-24 victory. They opened the game with a 12-play, 95-yard, nearly seven-minute siege, culminating in a 4-yard Dillon Johnson touchdown plunge to give UW a 7-0 lead.

Their next two drives — spanning seven plays and 57 yards, then 12 more plays and 73 yards — ended the same way. Sophomore wide receiver Germie Bernard took an end-around along the left edge for a 3-yard score before running back Will Nixon gathered a toss and burst ahead for a 5-yard touchdown to spot the Huskies a 21-7 lead late in the second quarter.

With the nation’s leading passer at quarterback, UW (5-0, 2-0 Pac 12) tallied a trio of rushing touchdowns in an efficient first half.

But Penix also came to play.

Without injured standout wideout Jalen McMillan for a second consecutive game, the senior slinger completed 22 of 25 passes (88%) for 223 yards in a precise first half. But the Huskies — who entered the game with 22 completions of 30 yards or more, easily the most in the nation — managed a long of just 23 yards in the first two quarters.

A year after Penix threw for a school-record 516 yards in a 49-39 win over Arizona, the long ball was elusive in a sold-out Arizona Stadium.

But it wouldn’t stay that way.

After going three-and-out on its opening drive of the second half, the Husky offense responded — as Penix dropped a looper along the left sideline to tight end Josh Cuevas for a 57-yard gain. And after a Cuevas holding penalty backed up the Huskies, UW again extended the drive on third-and-16 — with tight end Devin Culp hauling in a pass through the arms of safety Dalton Johnson for 18 critical yards. Dillon Johnson then added another four-yard score to extend the lead to 28-10.

In No. 7 Washington’s first legitimate test, Penix completed 30 of 40 passes for 363 yards in the win. Johnson rushed for 88 yards, 6.3 yards per carry and two touchdowns and added five catches for 48 yards.

But even without Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura — who missed the game after sustaining an ankle injury in last week’s 21-20 win over Stanford — the Wildcat offense continued to answer. In his first career start, redshirt freshman quarterback Noah Fifita didn’t flinch, completing 21 of 32 passes for 165 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

Indeed, after punting on its first two possessions Saturday, Arizona found its legs. The Wildcats’ standout wide receivers, Tetairoa McMillan (five catches, 35 yards, one TD) and Jacob Cowing (six catches, 37 yards, one TD), both found the end zone.

But to continue the baseball analogy, both teams committed costly fourth-quarter errors. With 11:46 left, Fifita attempted to escape a Ralen Goforth sack with an underhand flip to tight end Tanner McLachlan. UW sophomore safety Vincent Nunley snared his first career interception instead. But instead of capitalizing, UW’s subsequent 39-yard drive ended with a Bernard fumble at the Arizona 3-yard line.

UW struggled to close the door.

But ultimately, the Wildcats succumbed to a barrage of base hits.

Though it wasn’t pretty, the Huskies’ playoff hopes survived the day.