Who knew Washington football fans would be left longing for lightning?
On Sept. 7, 2019, that’s what they got — the first documented lightning delay in Husky Stadium history. At 7:51 p.m., with 9:46 remaining in the first quarter of a scoreless game, everything stopped. The teams, UW and Cal, retreated to their locker rooms. Fans were instructed to abandon the mostly-metal bleachers; some chanted “Go Huskies!” while huddling under the overhangs. As rain puddles populated the artificial turf, a few fans hopped the railings and ran zigzags on the field. At one point, the overhead lights went out altogether; lightning strikes lit up the essentially empty stadium.
And after the two-hour, 39-minute lightning delay ended, the letdown began. Cal ran for 192 yards and 5.1 yards per carry, with 122 of them (and two touchdowns) coming in a calamitous third quarter. Cal kicker Greg Thomas drilled a 17-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining to seal a 20-19 win. The Huskies’ 15-game home winning streak was unceremoniously snapped in a rain-soaked stadium at 1:23 a.m.
It was a memorable, miserable night on Montlake.
And what happened this week was so much worse.
On Thursday, less than 24 hours after Cal announced that one of its players had tested positive for COVID-19, UW’s season opener was canceled and declared a no-contest. Head coach Justin Wilcox stated that Berkeley Public Health’s contact tracing protocols dictated an entire Cal position group remain in quarantine.
“Obviously (it’s a) disappointing day for us,” Wilcox said on Thursday afternoon. “I’m sick for our players and feel for them. I feel for the guys at Washington. Everybody was looking forward to this game. Everybody was really excited to play. It’s a tough pill to swallow, quite honestly. We take the virus seriously and have done so for seven months.”
Of course, the most significant concern must be directed at the unnamed player who tested positive — who Wilcox reported is asymptomatic. And it’s also possible the two teams could make up the game on Dec. 19, a weekend reserved for the Pac-12 title game or other as-of-yet unannounced conference match ups.
But this remains an undeniably disappointing moment for UW’s players, coaches and fans — who have prepared for three separate season openers that were eventually canceled. And for Jimmy Lake, the challenge — as his head coaching debut continues to be delayed — is to keep his team focused on the task at hand, which is now an opener against Oregon State inside Husky Stadium on Nov. 14.
It’s to ensure his players believe there’s still something to gain from — at most — a six-game season.
“I think the Pac-12 champion should definitely end up in the playoff,” Lake said in a Pac-12 media webinar last month. “If somebody goes 7-0 or 6-1 and plays really good football, I think you also have to pay attention to how we’re playing and watch those games close. I see a lot of teams ranked right now that gave up 60, 62 points on defense (in a game) and I don’t know if you’re a voter how you still rank them in the top 25 when their defense is giving up points like a basketball game. So you’ve got to be able to watch the games.”
Therein lies the problem: when it comes to Washington, no one’s been able to watch them play. UW and Cal — as well as Arizona and Utah, whose game was also canceled Friday after the Utes reported too many positive COVID-19 tests and quarantined players to field a competitive roster — are set to be the final FBS teams to embark on a 2020 season. According to a source, UW explored the possibility of playing an impromptu game against Arizona this weekend, but it was impossible to organize on such short notice.
And meanwhile, the top four teams in the Associated Press poll — Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame — have already completed a combined 21 games. In the minds of the playoff committee members, that certainly has to matter.
Granted, given the conference’s national reputation, it was always going to be difficult for a 7-0 Pac-12 champion to wiggle its way into the College Football Playoff. But now, for the Huskies (and Cal, and Utah, and Arizona), hope may have been extinguished before they ever took the field.
Just don’t tell that to the Huskies’ relentlessly optimistic head coach.
“Let’s get the 2020 Season Started in Husky Stadium! The way it was meant to be!” Lake tweeted on Thursday. “The Dawgs are more than ready! #BowDownToWashington”
The fans, too, have long been ready to watch the Washington Huskies play.
But they’ve also become all-too accustomed to delays — lightning or otherwise.