Fast Start Put Everything In Place For UW

It was a moment John Ross III had dreamed about. Ross, the Washington junior wideout, doesn’t sleep well these days - presumably because he was too amped up for his 2016 return. And what a return it was - a 92-yarder, to be exact.

“I had a dream that the opening kickoff I took back,” Ross said after the Huskies crushed Rutgers 48-13 at Husky Stadium Saturday to open their 2016 season. “I was just telling coach (Chris) Petersen about that.”

The only thing that took away from Ross’s perfect re-introduction back into Husky Football was the fact that he didn’t take the opening kickoff the distance. He had to wait until the first time the Scarlet Knights booted the ball away for a house call. That came with 2:36 left to go to halftime. 

Ross went straight up the middle, went wide of Rutgers kicker Jared Smolar, and then raced into the record books with his fourth career kickoff return for a touchdown. 

It was also his fifth scoring play of 90 or more yards and tenth scoring play of 50 yards or more - incredible numbers for a player that still has nearly two years of eligibility remaining.  

For Ross, a player who had to sit out all of 2015 with a knee injury and finished Saturday with 182 all-purpose yards - you would have thought the kick return was the highlight of a triumphant return to Montlake. 

But it was simply the culmination of a dream start for the Huskies, who left no doubt in the first quarter who was going to win the game. 

Despite only winning four games last year, including one Big Ten game, Rutgers wasn’t exactly expected to be a soft landing for Petersen and the Huskies in game one. There was a ton of uncertainty surrounding how the Scarlet Knights were going to play because their head coach - Chris Ash - had never been a head coach before. They would be revealing unique schemes. 

For Petersen, who is meticulous in his game preparation, this presented a dilemma. Ash was Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator last year, and Rutgers’ current offensive coordinator, Drew Mehringer, coached under another former Ohio State coordinator, Tom Herman, at Houston in 2015. 

So Petersen and the Washington staff knew the roots of the playcalling trees, and they had plenty of film of the Rutgers players from last season, but how would those two pieces of information function as a whole? Like the Reese’s peanut butter cup ad, would those two great tastes taste great together?

No one got a chance to find out, especially Rutgers.

Washington won the toss, much to Ross’s chagrin, and promptly shut the Scarlet Knights down on their first possession. 

After getting the ball, the Huskies went on the attack. It took them three plays and 75 seconds to score their first touchdown of the season, a beautifully thrown ball from sophomore Jake Browning to fellow sophomore Chico McClatcher down the south sideline that went 43 yards. 

Rutgers next possession was even worse. Quarterback Chris Laviano scrambled, started to go down and was ruthlessly nailed in the side by Husky linebacker Keishawn Bierria at the Scarlet Knights’ 33-yard line. The ball was recovered by UW’s Psalm Wooching at the 35. 

After converting a fourth down, Washington settled for a 45-yard field goal to tack more points on the scoreboard. 

Washington’s defense, the best the Pac-12 last year, forced two more punts. The first one forced the Huskies to their own 15, where Browning went to work. 

First he hit Dante Pettis for 16 yards. Then McClatcher went around left end for 13. Myles Gaskin chipped in with his best run of the day, an 18-yard dash to the Rutgers’ 38. 

“I thought Jake did a great job because it is not really part of his progression unless he gets a certain matchup, so he saw the matchup and took advantage of it,” Petersen said post-game.

Browning then went up top again - this time to Ross - who caught the high, arcing spiral in stride right at the Rutgers’ goal-line for six. It was a gorgeous play, one that was initially designed as a run.

Browning recognized the one-on-one matchup and called Ross’s number. 

“That was a little bit different, where we would put the isolation guy, one on one route in a run call,” said UW Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith. “That’s something we’ve done just this year.” 

It was a new call for a player who clearly has put in the work to turn his deficiencies into strengths. And he showed that strength off again just two minutes later as he found Ross coming open right down the heart of the Rutgers’ defense. 

He threw it up to the heavens and let Ross run under it in stride. It was exactly how you diagram an explosive play, and it was the third big touchdown of the game for the Huskies. 

And they call came in the first quarter, the fourth-highest scoring first quarter in UW history. 

“They have a very aggressive safety, that’s why I think we were able to hit some of the deep stuff on them,” Browning said. “They want to get their safeties deep down and get involved in the run game. That’s kind of the coverage. They either played a soft cover four, or hard in there. They may stop a couple runs but they’re going to give up deep stuff and be one on one and put a lot on their corners. That’s kind of what happens.”

It happened in a big way, and in a way Petersen had been hoping to see. And this is not even counting the 68-yard punt return touchdown by Pettis in the third quarter to really put the game on ice. 

Washington has only played three games in their history where they’ve scored touchdowns via kick return and punt return: 1940 versus Washington State and 2001 against Idaho.

Slow starts had been a fixture of Washington’s offensive issues in 2015, but if Saturday is any indication of what the Huskies are capable of doing we could be seeing the marriage of something truly impressive: an offensive arsenal wedded to a ’death row’-inspired defense and record-setting special teams. 

The defense didn’t allow a Rutgers drive to have more than one first down until the second quarter. The first team defense didn’t give up a touchdown. The second and third team defense played the entire fourth quarter. Through three quarters the Huskies had given up only 169 total yards to the Scarlet Knights, and that was with liberal substitutions with all personnel groupings. 

“That’s the way you want to start,” UW Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said, matter-of-factly. “Three and outs and getting the offense as many opportunities as possible - that’s what it’s all about. Starting fast like that is great when you’re at home. You can build confidence on it, fans get into it, and yeah, couldn’t have asked for a better start.”

Coach K could have just as easily been talking about the offense. They did what good offenses do: survey the situation and take what’s given. Rutgers was determined to make Browning beat them, and he beat them badly. 

“The first quarter was really, really good on both sides and all three phases,” said Petersen. “To get some more explosive plays on offense, get the deep ball going a little bit, we figured those guys would stack the box up pretty good to stop the run, which most do, so you have to be explosive in the passing game and that was taken care of for the most part. I am proud of our defense for getting turnovers, lying around and playing high-level defense. 

“It was good to get out of the gate fast, especially when there are so many unknowns – unknown staff, unknown players – all those kinds of things.”

The Washington Huskies aren’t unknowns anymore. By putting the pedal down early and often, they laid the groundwork. With 69 Huskies getting a chance to play on Saturday, they provided meaningful turns for players they’ll be counting on later in the season. 

A fast start meant a quick result. It was exactly what Washington was looking for. 

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