Shaq Runs Like Ralphie As UW Halts Skid

As Sefo Liufau and the Colorado Buffaloes cleanly sliced through Washington's defense like so much soft butter on the toast that was to be Mike MacIntyre's first big breakthrough as CU's Head Coach, all sorts of memories started to float through my mind. Namely, the last 10 years of Dawggy demise on the road, leading to 10-straight seasons of mini-schneids.

Yup - that's 10 years of campaigns where Washington has had a three-game losing streak sandwiched in it like so much unwelcome filler. It started in 2004, where it didn't matter where UW played - they lost. 2005, Tyrone Willingham's first season at UW, didn't fare any better. And in fact, from 2004 through 2008, the Huskies had a streak of at least six losses in a row at some point during those years.

That's futility on a grand scale, a concessionary cow chip that Ralphie, the Colorado mascot, would be proud to call its own. Ralphie did leave a steaming souvenir in one of the end zones pre-game, and the way Colorado came roaring out of the gate they half-expected Washington to clean up the mess after turning out the Folsom Field lights.

The Huskies did handle their business, albeit not as easily as they would have liked. But most importantly, they kept that dreaded three-game losing streak at bay for at least another few weeks. It may seem an arbitrary marker, but these mid-season failure hiccups have become a yearly symbol for everything seemingly holding Washington back from bigger things, from getting back to their place atop the Pac-12 pig(skin) pile.

Simply put, top teams don't have those slides. They rebound from tough losses with resounding wins. They stare adversity in the face, laugh at adversity, and then give adversity the atomic wedgie it so richly deserves.

In 2009, Steve Sarkisian was faced with his first three-game losing streak as Washington's new head coach, but the Huskies were able to miraculously score two late touchdowns - including the Immaculate Deflection off the foot of Arizona's Delashaun Dean into the waiting arms of linebacker Mason Foster for an improbable 36-33 win for the good guys.

Sarkisian's Huskies promptly followed up that gritty effort with four-straight losses. Just like Sark couldn't get past five league wins in any season, he couldn't avoid a case of the mid-season slumps.

And that's why I bring all this crappy history up; first-year Head Coach Chris Petersen has a chance to remove a cubic ton of psychic debris from Montlake Saturday versus UCLA if he can show that the win at Colorado was a sign of a team turning a corner. Because even with Sarkisian's best team in 2013, they had a giant three-game losing hole right in the middle of their schedule, a stretch where they were unceremoniously outscored 139-76.

None of this means a whit to Petersen, but in principle he understands better than anyone how important momentum is during a season, and how it can also be a fickle mistress. It can be in your corner one minute, gone the next, and in the next zip code the following week. That's why rebounding from a difficult two-touchdown loss to Arizona State with a two touchdown win at Colorado is important - regardless of how the Buffs are perceived.

And the best part? Well, in hindsight we can say this now - but the best part is that there's still so much that can be improved upon. Petersen wouldn't use the fact that they were playing on grass as an excuse, or the fact that they were playing at altitude - which can cause shortness of breath if not acclimated. These were not the reasons for a slow start, or for red zone turnovers (the first of the year, by the way), or the abysmal tackling. Pete wouldn't use the early start as an excuse for the fact that his team apparently wore their Snuggies to work for the first half (why not - they are comfy), but they eventually found their pads and decided to use them for the final 30 minutes.

There were a few Huskies that did come to Boulder ready to work. Linebacker Travis Feeney brought his hard hat with him, and his stickiest gloves. His 30-yard pick-six of Liufau in the third quarter was a play Lester Hayes would have been proud to call his own. And Andrew Hudson had six tackles, two for loss, one sack, and one pass breakup - the second game in a row where the senior defensive end has come up with a strong individual performance.

Washington may have found another offensive weapon in Dante Pettis, as the true frosh accounted for two touchdowns - one via pass and one via an 87-yard punt return. By the way, the true frosh from San Clemente, Calif. wears the number 87, and he was also the 87th-rated receiver for the 2014 recruiting class by Scout.com.

But the main Husky who came to work with his lunchpail, milk money, and an extra apple for Coach Petersen, was Shaq Thompson. With Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington again out and the offensive staff uninterested in using Deontae Cooper as their lead back, UW once again relied on the Shaq Attack to keep the engine humming. All Shaq did was average nearly 13 yards every time he touched the football, eventually racking up 215 total yards of offense, scoring their first touchdown of the day to get them right back in thing when they needed to settle the nerves and take some of the sting out of the game. And he was able to do all that behind a patchwork offensive line, one that saw Mike Criste get significant playing time at right guard and James Atoe at right tackle.

Petersen was asked post-game if they will keep using Shaq on offense. "We just have to figure out the best way to continue to use him," he said. In only two full games as a starter, Thompson is already the No. 2 rusher on the team and only need 83 yards to blow by Coleman as the Huskies' leading ballcarrier. Yes, the fact that UW's leading running back has less than 500 yards nine games into the season is fairly appalling, but it also goes to the heart of the 'running back by committee' approach everyone expected the Huskies to employ in an attempt to recreate Bishop Sankey's impressive 2013 production in the aggregate. They have five backs with over 150 net yards apiece - the same number they had last year.

Two things are crystal clear when talking about Shaq Thompson. One - he's going to make a sizable impact in any phase of play. Two - his biggest impact right now is on offense. Washington has no other running backs that can provide his combination of size, speed, strength, vision, and aggressiveness. Dwayne Washington would be closest, but he didn't play Saturday.

If Shaq does play running back Saturday, as he should - it will be interesting to see how Washington's use of their three-way star is juxtaposed against UCLA's use of their own multi-talent - Myles Jack. While the Huskies have tried their best to keep Thompson focused squarely on one side of the ball, whichever side that may be for that particular week, Jack seems to embody the definition of a true 'two-way' player. He won't run the ball as much as Shaq has the last two weeks, but he'll also play a lot of defense - something the UW coaches have not asked Shaq to do.

There's a very good reason for this. With Washington down to one scholarship running back, they are all-in on Shaq being the man. To be all-in, they have to bury him with as much as they can in a short period of time so he can function like he's always been a running back. That's a tough ask for anyone, but Shaq has shown he can handle it - even if it is the equivalent of drinking water through a firehose.

Here's a good example: Having just gotten the ball back at the Colorado 36-yard line down seven after a Danny Shelton fumble recovery, Washington had a chance to tie the Buffs before half. Cyler Miles, making a solid hometown debut in front of dozens of friends and family, went for a simple outside zone read with Thompson. The ball went in Shaq's belly, but was never fully secure. The football squirted loose and CU recovered.

Because Thompson is being used in an emergency situation, those types of plays appear to be unavoidable - the result of a lack of chemistry between quarterback and running back. In short, it's the price the coaches are willing to absorb for the bigger payoff. The only way to try and create chemistry in that way is to get Shaq fully immersed in the position and let him go to town. It's clear the Huskies have no other alternatives currently, and Shaq has provided a spark that has proven to be pretty invaluable.

Could there be a time late in the UCLA game where the UW coaches will be tempted to throw him in on defense to help get a key stop? Of course. That's a normal reaction, but they have to resist that temptation. The Huskies have shown they have enough defensively without Shaq to still be very effective. Keishawn Bierria has come on by leaps and bounds the last few weeks, and Scott Lawyer came on to provide a key forced fumble to help turn the tide in the second half versus Colorado.

So it's time for Petersen to give Shaq the ball as much as he can, and let the results speak for themselves. Injuries have forced his hand, but if this season has shown anything it's that Shaq Thompson can turn plays into points - no matter what side of the ball he's asked to stand on.

But his odds are better on offense, and Petersen knows this. So let Shaq run like Ralphie, leaving presents for the Bruins in his wake.


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