University of Washington football fans have spoken — a good portion of them are staying away.
For two games, they haven't shown up in large numbers at Husky Stadium. The place was just two-thirds full for the opener against Montana and half full at best on Saturday for Arkansas State, no matter what the official attendance figures reported.
For both games, large sections of empty seats were clearly visible throughout the stands.
This has to be deeply troubling to school officials now facing waning interest, the potential for lost revenue and a less electric atmosphere.
The reason for no-shows at the so-called "greatest setting in college football" could be any number of things.
Miserable season start?
Maybe all of the above.
You have to go back to 1981 — a Rose Bowl season — to find a UW home football game that drew a crowd as dismal as Saturday's gathering. That year, the Don James-coached Huskies beat a significantly outmatched Pacific team 34-14 in the opener and fans weren't drawn to it. Just 45,134 sat through it, according to the official attendance reported
A large number of Husky followers recently said on social media that they were canceling their tickets over mask mandates and vaccination verification requirements, which actually don't go into full effect until next Saturday for the UW's Pac-12 opener against California.
The Bears game should be a true barometer for where interest in Husky football stands moving forward this season.
Whereas the situation at safety is seemingly settled for now, with veterans Cam Williams and Alex Cook reclaiming starting jobs over the past two weeks and each playing well against Arkansas State, the defensive line remains the Husky position now most in a state of flux.
Against the Red Wolves, the UW went with redshirt freshman Faatui Tuitele as a starting defensive tackle alongside sophomore Taki Taimani, replacing sophomore Tuli Letuligaseno in the lineup. Tuitele became the fourth different starter used in the two slots this season. Jacob Bandes was the other, with the redshirt freshman drawing a starting assignment the week before in a three-man alignment at Michigan.
The Huskies struggled to come up with a big play up front in its three games until Tuitele stripped the ball from Arkansas State back-up quarterback Layne Hatcher, enabling UW edge rusher Bralen Trice to scoop it up and go 72 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
The DLs chalked up just 8 tackles collectively in Saturday's 52-3 victory over the Sun Belt team, spread evenly throughout the position group: Tuitele 2, Tamani 2, Bandes 2, Letuligasenoa 1 and Draco Bynum 1.
The Huskies have been waiting for the emergence of the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Tuitele from Honolulu, Hawaii. He remains the most heavily recruited player on the roster after receiving nearly 40 offers, choosing the UW over the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Texas.
The Arkansas State game ended at 4:42 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, which was important because the Huskies might need all the rest they can get between now and next weekend when they face California at home in their conference opener. You just never know what can happen.
Two years ago, the UW and Cal met in Husky Stadium on a Saturday night in September and didn't finish playing until early Sunday morning because of an agonizing 2-hour, 39-minute lightning delay. This interrupted encounter began at 7:30 p.m. and didn't conclude until 1:22 a.m., with the Bears sneaking off with a last-minute 20-19 victory.
However, the weather report for next Saturday calls for sunshine during the day and temperatures reaching 72 degrees, and presumably no thunderbolts.
With the Huskies enjoying a 49-point victory, this gave a bunch of previously unused players an opportunity to make their college debuts. Foremost was true freshman quarterback Sam Huard, who drew a fourth-quarter series and led the UW on a 12-play, 72-yard drive for Peyton Henry's 38-yard field goal.
Huard completed 2 of 5 passes for 31 yards and looked comfortable enough. He twice tried and failed to connect with true freshman wide receiver Jabez Tinae, his favorite target at Kennedy Catholic High School who also was making his first college appearance. With his first game time in the books, Huard one-upped his father Damon and uncle Brock, quarterbacks who each had to redshirt for a season before earning Husky playing time.
Second-year freshman tailback Jay'Veon Sunday from Waco, Texas, likewise made his college debut and rushed on three consecutive plays for zero, 2 and 6 yards in the waning minutes.
Another guy getting on the field for the first time was Meki Pei, a walk-on, second-year freshman safety from Honolulu, Hawaii. He also surpassed his dad of the same name with his official game snaps. The older Meki Pei came to the Huskies as a scholarship linebacker in 1992, stayed for two seasons and left the team when playing time didn't materialize.
Finally, Ben Hines went in for his college debut. The walk-on inside linebacker from Snohomish, Washington, waited the longest for his chance, spending four years in the UW program and not playing until the 34th game of his career. A little on the smallish side at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, the hard-working third-stringer has always been a team favorite.
The Huskies similarly gave quarterback Patrick O'Brien, a sixth-year senior who previously played at Nebraska and Colorado State, a series against Arkansas State and his first snaps with his new team. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Californian, who backs up Dylan Morris and Huard, handed the ball three times to Sunday and closed out the game with a 13-yard scramble.
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