The University of Washington football team finally found some offense on Saturday afternoon at Husky Stadium. Somebody better alert the fan base. While there were plenty of touchdowns and yards to go around, surprisingly few people saw it happen in person.
In front of one of the smallest crowds in recent memory — at least when permitted inside by the pandemic — the Huskies scored on four consecutive first-half possessions, all from 70 to 93 yards long, and did to Arkansas State what they should have done to Montana in the opener.
They thumped the Red Wolves, 52-3.
After going 3-and-out to open the game, the UW pushed across touchdowns by Cade Otton, Sean McGrew, Richard Newton and Jalen McMillen, in that order and in rapid-fire progression, to easily distance itself from the Sun Belt visitors.
The lopsided outcome and generous production helped quiet the critics some and enabled the Huskies to feel a little better about their previously underachieving selves.
"As a team, we know who we are," said nickelback Bookie Radley-Hiles, the Oklahoma transfer. "This is a team full of tough guys."
What was so different, anyway?
The Huskies let quarterback Dylan Morris repeatedly stand in the pocket and throw upfield to an overly opportunistic McMillen; rotated in four different running backs in the opening half, giving sixth-year seniors McGrew and Kamari Pleasant their first carries of the season; and, shades of two seasons ago, used Newton out of the Wildcat formation.
Also, much maligned offensive coordinator John Donovan notably moved from the sideline to the press box on game day, for the first time in seven games for the Huskies. He seemingly had a much better view of things.
Still, Husky Stadium didn't come close to filling more than half of its 72,000-plus capacity, traditionally late-arriving fans or not, which was contrary to the announced crowd of 58,772. Obvious reasons for the low turnout were COVID-19 restrictions that either weren't strong enough for some fans or turned off others, rain that began to fall steadily not long after the game began and the UW's previous anemic offensive showings against Montana and Michigan.
While the nagging pandemic and inclement weather might not change any time soon, the Huskies hope the offense doesn't take any more weekends off.
These guys looked more like the team that had great hopes entering the season, was ranked 20th in the polls and projected to be one of the Pac-12 contenders. They churned out 598 yards of total offense and 30 first downs against feeble Arkansas State.
Now one offensive outburst against a clearly outclassed opponent does not automatically guarantee future success against tougher teams, but this was substantial progress.
"The past is the past," coach Jimmy Lake said. "I just love the way we responded."
Morris impressively drove the Huskies 88 yards in 10 plays to open the scoring, hitting a wide-open Otton in the left corner of the end zone for the opening points at the 8:21 mark of the first quarter. A 39-yard pass from Morris to McMillen, who made a tough, over-the shoulder-catch, got them upfield in a hurry.
After forcing a short Arkansas State field goal that missed, the UW went 80 yards in seven plays for a 13-yard McGrew touchdown run. It was his first appearance of the season, let alone runs. He did a stutter step at the line of scrimmage to make a defender look foolish and scored easily with 3:32 left in the opening quarter. A 30-yard pass to McMillen helped this drive along.
Following a 3-and-out by the Red Wolves, the Huskies zipped 70 yards down the field in 10 plays to make it 21-0. Newton did the honors, taking the direct snap, faking to Giles Jackson cutting past him and and trotting in from 2 yards out early in the second quarter.
Another 3-and-out later, these rejuvenated Huskies hustled 93 yards in seven plays for a 33-yard McMillen TD catch, the first for the second-year freshman in his career. He beat an Arkansas State defender in a footrace up the right sideline. This time, Taj Davis caught a 39-yard pass to set it all up.
In his best UW outing, Morris completed 23 of 39 passes for 367 yards and 3 touchdowns, twice getting intercepted.
"We had to throw it to run it," Morris said.
He lobbed 10 balls to McMillen, who had 152 receiving yards by halftime, the most since John Ross piled up 204 against California in 2016, and finished with 175.
The Huskies added a pair of second-half scores on offense on McGrew's 1-yard run and a 42-yard pass from Morris to an uncovered Terrell Bynum to keep the rout going, while Arkansas State could offer only a third-quarter field goal by Blake Grupe from 26 yards.
Morris gave way to freshman Sam Huard with 12:40 left to play. The anointed one handed off to Pleasant on his first play, which resulted in a 16-yard gain. After an incomplete pass, Huard lobbed a 23-yard completion to Jackson down the middle, drawing a big ovation. His initial appearance ended with a Peyton Henry 38-yard field goal with 8:05 left.
Huard completed 2 of 5 passes for 31 yards and his throws drew a pair of pass-interference calls.
While the Huskies didn't tinker with their offensive lineup any, they continued to swap out starters on defense.
They opened with redshirt freshman Daniel Heimuli at inside linebacker and redshirt freshman Faatui Tuitele at defensive tackle. Heimuli made his first career start, replacing second-team All-Pac-12 player Edefuan Ulofoshio, who played as a reserve but apparently had some sort of minor injury.
"Guys are dealing with little nicks," Lake said. "Eddie is still our starter."
The UW went with Tuitele instead of sophomore Tuli Letuligasenoa, giving him his second career start but first this season. Letuligasenoa likewise was in uniform and subbed in.
The Huskies have now traded out four of the 11 defensive starters since the opening game.
The defense celebrated its first turnover in three games, a third-quarter fumble recovery by Radley-Hiles caused by a big hit by linebacker Carson Bruener.
It was one of three, with Julius Irvin providing the first Husky interception of the season and a 34-yard return, and edge rusher Bralen Trice capping the scoring with a 72-yard fumble return for a score following a strip sack by Tuitele in the closing minutes.
Next up for the UW is a night game at home next weekend against California, with the Huskies hoping they can continue their newfound offensive fireworks against a more reputable conference foe. More fans would be welcome, too.
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