CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: Takeaways from No. 7 UW Huskies’ 31-24 win over Arizona

Sep 30, 2023, 11:42 PM | Updated: Oct 1, 2023, 9:36 am

UW Huskies Dillon Johnson...

UW Huskies running back Dillon Johnson rushes against Arizona on Sept. 30, 2023. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TUCSON, Ariz. — Here’s what to know about the No. 7 UW Huskies’ 31-24 victory at Arizona, as Washington improved to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in Pac-12 play.

Recap: No. 7 UW Huskies win 31-24 as Penix picks apart Arizona D

A methodical pace

Unlike in their previous four games, the Huskies relied on sustained drives to score touchdowns, rather than a series of explosive pass plays.

Michael Penix Jr. still threw for 363 yards and completed 30 of his 40 passes — a very healthy average of 9.1 yards per attempt — but had only three completions longer than 18 yards in the first three quarters. That’s certainly not a paltry statistic, but it also isn’t reflective of the big-play ability UW’s passing game showed in its first four victories.

This also was the first game in which UW did not have a 100-yard receiver, though Germie Bernard came close, leading the Huskies with eight receptions for 98 yards on a team-high 10 targets.

The Huskies still wound up averaging a solid 7.2 yards per play, and scored touchdowns on their first three possessions.

“They were playing it safe and making us earn it, and played the field-position game there early,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said of Arizona’s defensive approach. “Naturally, we hit the checkdowns. We did there in the third quarter find ways to get behind them — some play-action that got set up with the run game a little bit. We know that’s our style (throwing deep), but it isn’t always going to happen that way.”

The Huskies leaned on their running game to get into the end zone, scoring all four of their touchdowns on the ground. Dillon Johnson led with a season-high 91 yards on 16 carries, plus two touchdowns. Bernard and Will Nixon scored the others.

One tight end, two big plays

Sixth-year senior Devin Culp caught precisely one pass in each of the Huskies’ first four games. He caught two on Saturday, and both were pivotal.

The first was a spectacular, 18-yard reception on third-and-16 over tight coverage from an Arizona defender, extending a drive that appeared destined for a field-goal try. Instead, Culp’s highlight-reel catch gave the Huskies a first down at Arizona’s 4-yard line, and Johnson punched in a touchdown on the next play to give UW a 28-10 lead with 6:42 left in the third quarter — a three-score margin, rather than the two-score lead a field goal would have provided.

Culp’s second catch was more routine, but also helped the Huskies stay on the field. With UW leading 28-17 and facing a third-and-3 from the minus-32 yard line late in the third quarter, Penix dumped a short throw over the middle to Culp, and he rumbled for a 14-yard gain to move the chains. The Huskies settled for a field goal on that possession, but Culp’s grab still was crucial in preventing Arizona from getting the ball back immediately after scoring a touchdown.

A susceptible defense?

At first glance, the numbers don’t look so bad. Arizona gained 342 yards, averaged 4.9 yards per play and had only four plays from scrimmage longer than 13 yards, with only one longer than 20. Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita — playing in place of injured starter Jayden de Laura — completed 27 of 39 passes for 232 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, though the Huskies will live with his pedestrian average of 5.9 yards per attempt. The Wildcats rushed 35 times for 110 yards, with only two of those carries netting double-digit yardage.

Yet it still felt as if the Huskies yielded more than they should have, perhaps due to some untimely penalties and missed tackles. DeBoer wasn’t all that down on UW’s defensive performance — he praised sophomore safety Vincent Nunley for his first career interception — though the coach did lament that the Huskies couldn’t get off the field on Arizona’s fourth-and-one play on its final touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

“We made them earn it all the way down the field,” DeBoer said, speaking generally. “Sometimes we’ve just got to attack a little bit more, trust everything. I thought it was a solid performance. Not a lot of big plays down the field. Guys were in position. Felt like the communication was good. We’re playing physical up front. They are a better run(ning) football team than they were a year ago, by far. We knew that balance would be something that would help them.”

Perhaps Arizona was able to convert via running the ball because the Huskies played much of the game without senior defensive tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa, who left with what appeared to be a lower leg injury. DeBoer said he didn’t think the injury was serious, and hoped that UW’s bye week would afford him enough time to get back for the Huskies’ matchup against Oregon on Oct. 14.

Penalties, penalties, penalties

UW entered the game ranked 131st out of 133 FBS teams in penalty yards per game at 86.5.

That ranking won’t improve any this week: the Huskies committed 12 penalties on Saturday for 125 yards, including a facemask followed by a pass-interference foul that contributed to Arizona’s second touchdown. They also committed a holding penalty in the red zone that thwarted one promising drive, and had a fourth-quarter sack wiped out by an illegal substitution.

“We’ve just got to do a better job,” DeBoer said, “especially on the holds, keeping our hands inside.”

The penalties were part of the reason Penix proclaimed: “I don’t feel like we played all the way to our standard today.”

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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