SEATTLE — After two and a half games, Washington was getting away with it.
Young and inexperienced players — including a handful of freshmen — were playing major roles on the team, and so far none of their mistakes had been glaringly obvious or game altering.
That all changed in a hurry on Saturday.
In what felt like only seconds — actually, in game time it was only seconds — two freshman mistakes helped turn a 7-3 Washington lead into a 17-7 deficit. The Huskies never recovered and Ohio State cruised to a 33-14 victory.
Early in the third quarter, Ohio State did what everyone had been expecting in Washington’s first two games, but had seen very little of: The Buckeyes tested freshman cornerback Vonzell McDowell deep. Brian Robiskie blew by McDowell on the play and caught a Todd Boeckman pass in stride for a 68-yard touchdown. That gave the Buckeyes a lead they would never relinquish.
Things went from bad to downright disastrous when freshman tailback Curtis Shaw fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting up another touchdown.
Only minutes earlier, Shaw had shown the positive side of a talented freshman, returning the half’s opening kickoff 35 yards to give the Huskies good field position.
“I think we showed a little bit of youth today,” said defensive coordinator Kent Baer. “We’ll be all right. We’ll be better.”
Shaw was filling in on kick returns for an injured Brandon Johnson, another freshman who had returned kicks in Washington’s first two games. Johnson suffered an undisclosed injury — UW coach Tyrone Willingham only described it as a bruise — in practice Thursday.
“I got a lot of emotions going through my head right now,” McDowell said after the game, speaking barely above a whisper. “I gave up some plays and could have played better, but that’s how the game goes. I’ll just grow from it and get ready for next week.”
Shaw also hoped to use his mistake as a leaning opportunity.
“We’re just learning right now, and hopefully we can overcome these mistakes,” he said. “It’s just a learning experience. You get over it pretty fast. Things like this happen when you’re young. You just look past it and when you get the chance again you just do better.”
McDowell said seniors Roy Lewis and Jason Wells were at his side immediately after the play to offer encouragement. Tailback Louis Rankin tried to offer the same for Shaw.
“I told him to not get his head down,” said Rankin, who returned kicks after Shaw’s fumble. “He had his head down for a little bit. But there’s really nothing you can do once you fumble. It’s over with. Dwelling on it’s not going to do anything but make it worse. You’ve just got to come back and make a play.”
Willingham said he and his team still have faith in Shaw, McDowell, and the rest of the young players.
“They’re quality football players, and we’ve got respect for them,” he said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be putting them in those positions… I think they will be fine.”