SEATTLE — With a dazzling array of big plays and a thoroughly dominating first quarter, the University of Washington football team showed on Saturday that its No. 14 national ranking might, in fact, just be for real.
Led by wide receiver John Ross, who celebrated his return from a year’s injury absence with two long touchdown receptions and a TD kickoff return, the Huskies rolled past Rutgers 48-13 in the season opener at Husky Stadium.
The outcome, for all intents and purposes, was decided in the first quarter as Washington scored on all four of its offensive possessions, including three touchdowns. The TDs came on passes by quarterback Jake Browning of 43 yards to wide receiver Chico McClatcher, and then 38 yards and 50 yards to Ross.
The Huskies added a field goal by Cameron Van Winkle in the opening quarter for a 24-0 lead. Then, just to make sure, they broke the game open in the second quarter with a 92-yard TD kickoff return by Ross and another Van Winkle field goal for a 34-3 halftime margin.
“It was good to get out of the gate fast,” said UW head coach Chris Petersen. “I thought we started off really explosive, and that was good,” Browning added.
Speed will certainly be an important asset for the Huskies this season, as evidenced on Saturday. Ross is probably the team’s most dynamic player, but McClatcher and fellow wide receiver Dante Pettis — he had a 68-yard TD punt return in the third quarter — are others who can fly. Equally important, Browning has the savvy to identify the players with defensive mismatches and the skill to get them the ball.
Case in point was the first TD pass to McClatcher, who came in motion out of the backfield and then broke up the sideline. He was picked up by a linebacker who had no chance to keep pace, and the result was a wide open receiver and an easy touchdown. Washington’s next TD, this one to Ross, actually came on a called running play when Browning spotted his receiver with a one-on-one perimeter defender. Browning made a switch at the line of scrimmage, Ross broke free and it was another easy TD.
“It’s hard to score touchdowns when they’re 12- and 14-play drives,” Petersen said. “I think we’ll become real efficient and we can do that, but it’s too hard to win games when all your drives are like that. You have to score with some explosive-type plays to really have the type of offense you want.
“We got some explosives today and I think that changes things,” he said. “Explosive plays foster, fuel and fire energy and emotion for the team.”
Take away the big plays and the UW offense was little better than average. The running game, which Rutgers seemed determined to stop, managed just 107 yards and no touchdowns. Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,302 yards and was a Freshman All-American in 2015, managed just 60 yards on 15 carries.
Also, Washington had only one offensive touchdown in the game’s final three quarters, and that came after an interception gave the Huskies a first-and-goal at the Rutgers 4-yard line.
“There’s definitely a lot to clean up if you start talking about the whole picture,” said UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith, “but we were pleased with the start.”
Defensively, Washington showed little dropoff from the unit that led the Pac-12 Conference in both scoring and yardage a year ago. The No. 1 defense held Rutgers to a single field goal through the first 2 1/2 quarters while forcing seven punts and two turnovers, and also getting one stop on downs. The Scarlet Knights, who kept their starters in most of the game, finally put up 10 fourth-quarter points against the UW’s second- and third-team defenses.
Next up for Washington will be non-conference games against Idaho and Portland State at Husky Stadium. The Pac-12 season begins on Sept. 24 at Arizona, the first of nine league games.
As the Huskies go forward, Petersen will continue to stress the importance of focus and improvement with no distractions due to media hype. Even after Saturday’s blowout, he shrugged it off as “(only) one game.”
“I think our guys have worked really hard for eight months (in the offseason), from (weight) lifting to conditioning to running,” he added. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked. So now they came out and played Game 1 really focused. … They did a good job and it’s what we asked them to do right out of the gate, but there’s a lot of football left to be played.”