It was homecoming on Saturday night at Husky Stadium, and the University of Washington football team welcomed back Zion Tupuola-Fetui, an accomplished student in the advanced study of edge rushing.
After he ran through the gauntlet of blankets and purple smoke, this coming after six months of intense rehabilitation from an Achilles tendon tear, the player known as ZTF made a beeline for the UCLA backfield.
Five and a half minutes and six defensive plays into the Pac-12 contest, Tupola-Fetui reminded everyone of the big man he once was on campus.
On his first play, he arrived right as Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, another quaintly initialed player, let go of the ball.
ZTF knocked DTR head over heels.
He was back.
A program victory.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, that was pretty much it in a pleasant but frustrating evening for college football in Seattle. They enjoyed no other lasting breakthroughs, no clutch performances and and found no way to avoid a fairly methodical 24-17 defeat to UCLA.
A UW football season supposedly filled with great promise is officially pronounced a bust.
The Huskies rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to deadlock this game through three and a half quarters, only to lose it on Greg Dulcich's 9-yard touchdown catch from Thompson-Robinson and well beyond the reach of UW safety Asa Turner with 8:19 left.
Disenchanted fans began filing out of the stadium with two minutes remaining when DTR converted a first down to secure the road win. UW players left the field with blank expressions on their face after suffering a second consecutive defeat surrounding a bye week.
The Huskies (2-4 overall, 1-2 Pac-12) couldn't tackle anyone. ZTF drew about a dozen plays for a successful return and brought pressure on the quarterback not seen previously from his position this season.
Yet his team generously gave up 237 yards rushing to the Bruins, and 420 yards of total offense overall. Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet led all rushers with 131 yards on 21 carries, while Thompson-Robinson added 87 on a dozen runs. The quarterback also was extra pinpoint, completing 21 of 26 passes for 183 yards and two TDs.
If Jimmy Lake wasn't in trouble as the UW coach before kickoff, and that's debatable, he certainly finds himself struggling to maintain the confidence of his employer. Results are all that matter at this level of football and he's not getting them.
"We've definitely got to tackle better and swarm better," Lake said. "No question, you give up over 200 yards you've got to clean stuff up."
UW quarterback Dylan Morris threw two interceptions, including one inside the final five minutes to raise a white flag. Husky defenders, as has been the case much of the season, forced no turnovers.
Fans began booing the Huskies midway through the second quarter as the Bruins (5-2, 3-1) scored on three consecutive series to secure a 17-3 advantage.
The Huskies had grabbed an early first-quarter lead at 3-0 after driving to the UCLA 2 and being unable to punch in the touchdown. Peyton Henry's 25-yard field goal put the home team on the board.
UCLA, however, responded rather emphatically that it was no big deal, exerting its will on its host. The Bruins moved 75 yards in just 6 plays to grab the lead. Wide receiver Kam Brown caught a pass in the left flat and dragged Husky edge rusher Sav'ell Smalls into the end zone for a 7-3 edge.
Tupola-Fetui was used only on third-down pass plays, though he drew a 6-play series on the final UW defensive set of the half. That was all he was going to get.
"We had a plan to keep it very, very limited," Lake said of his defensive standout. "Fortunately, he came out of it healthy."
ZTF drew a second play early in the second quarter, and made it memorable by pushing UCLA offensive tackle Alec Anderson into Thompson-Robinson and forcing a field goal rather than a touchdown. Nicholas Barr-Mira converted a 39-yarder for a 10-3 Bruins lead.
Following a 3-and-out series for the UW and a chorus of Husky Stadium booing, the Bruins went 56 yards in just 6 plays for Thompson-Robinson's 1-yard TD run, Suddenly homecoming had turned into a flunk fest. UCLA led 17-3 with 3:33 remaining in the half.
For the first time and only time in this game, the Huskies showed a real sense of urgency. They went 69 yards to score in a hurry, with Morris finding freshman Rome Odunze in the left corner of the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown pass -- the first of Odunze's UW career. Fifty-two seconds remained in the half.
Morris finished with 20 completions in 30 pass attempts for 184 yards and that one score, with the two picks.
The half ended with Tupuola-Fetui playing an entire series for the only time in this game, shoving multiple linemen backward, drawing 6 plays in all. The Huskies withstood a futile UCLA 54-yard field-goal attempt on the final play before the teams took a break.
ZTF was back and his disruptive self, though he didn't land a sack,, but the rest of his teammates couldn't take advantage, couldn't trade punches and couldn't be anything more than mediocre.
Coming out after halftime, the Huskies forced a UCLA punt and went 75 yards for an equalizing score on their first drive. Kamari Pleasant had consecutive runs of 34 and 17 runs to get them close, and Morris snuck one in to score on fourth down from the 1 to knot the game at 17.
Pleasant the Huskies with 80 yards on just 9 carries, indicating maybe he should play a lot more.
The game-winner came after UCLA forced a Husky punt and went 90 in 13 plays, with Dulcich beating Turner to the football to decide things. Turner started at strong safety because normal first-teamer Cam Williams was injured and in street clothes.
ZTF's football future looks bright once more after overcoming his extended absence and frayed tendon to play again. He makes things happen.
His football team, however, is wounded beyond belief, likely incapable any collective comebacks.
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