UW doomed by suspect defense, missed opportunities in Cactus Bowl
The Cactus Bowl wasn’t the signature performance the Washington Huskies needed to cap off Chris Petersen’s first season as their head football coach.
Washington was the victim of its own slow start on offense – a story that was all too familiar this season – in its 30-22 loss to Oklahoma State. And while the Husky offense had seemingly turned things around late in the season, that certainly didn’t look like the case against the Cowboys.
The Dawgs struggling on offense was at least somewhat expected considering their track record and their break of over a month from competition. What wasn’t expected, though, was the lackluster performance from the usually stellar defense, which had all kinds of trouble holding down an Oklahoma State team that scuffled its way to a .500 regular season record and was playing just its third game with a true freshman quarterback.
The Huskies ended their season ranked 40th in the nation at 24.8 points allowed per game, while the Cowboys sit at 76th with 27.6 points scored per game. And yet somehow Oklahoma State exceeded both of those numbers, thanks to a lights-out first half where it jumped out to a 24-0 advantage.
The Huskies’ vaunted pass rush was a shell of itself on an atypically chilly night in Tempe, Ariz. Washington had just three sacks on the night, a pretty pedestrian number considering the Cowboys rank near the bottom of the country in sacks allowed per game (3.08) and the UW D is second in the country at a 3.71 sacks average. The lack of pressure gave OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph plenty of time to pick on the shaky Washington secondary, and he did just that. Husky freshman safety Budda Baker’s highlight-reel one-handed interception in the first quarter stands out as the only real blemish on Rudolph’s stat sheet, as he completed 17 of 26 attempts for 299 yards and a pair of touchdowns – a 28-yarder to James Washington and a 47-yard bomb to Brandon Shepard.
And then there was the tackling, a back-burner issue for much of the season in Montlake that suddenly moved to the forefront on Friday night. The Cowboys shook off tackle after tackle on their way to out-gaining Washington 473 yards to 369, including a 152-101 advantage in the ground game.
For all the trouble the defense had, however, it doesn’t mean the offense is without fault. The Huskies squandered multiple opportunities to keep the game from getting out of hand in the first half, remaining scoreless despite the benefit of two turnovers. The Cowboys had the answer for the Washington running game, holding starting tailback Dwayne Washington to 49 yards on 13 carries. And without much help on the ground, UW quarterback Cyler Miles had no luck finding a rhythm until the third quarter.
Of course, every part of the game plan was better in the second half for the Huskies, and they were able to make it a one-score game late in the fourth quarter. The poor first half was too big of a hole to crawl out of, though, allowing the Cowboys and unlikely hero James Castleman to escape with the win.
Castleman, a burly defensive tackle who got a few opportunities to be the Cowboys fullback on Friday, will be what everybody remembers about the 2015 Cactus Bowl. His one-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the game was one thing, but it was his catch in the fourth quarter that was the real highlight. With UW needing a stop on third and 2 at the Oklahoma State 35, Castleman hauled in a short pass in the flat, turned upfield, laid a massive hit on Husky defender Brandon Beaver and rambled downfield for a 48-yard gain. That play essentially locked up the eight-point win for the Cowboys, as it allowed them to run the clock down to 43 seconds left before a missed field goal gave the ball back to the Dawgs.
The Cactus Bowl was a chance for the Huskies to make a statement. A win would have given them nine on the season and a trophy to remember Petersen’s inaugural season by. Instead, they’ll will have to live with their squandered opportunities and being the white jerseys on the wrong side of one of the longest receptions you’ll ever see by a 300-pound defensive tackle.