TUCSON, Ariz. - Washington’s big-play offense had few deep options with Arizona sitting back on defense.
Forced to adapt, Michael Penix Jr. went to his checkdowns, his receivers turned short passes into chunk plays and the Huskies’ run game finished it off with touchdowns.
Penix Jr. threw for 363 yards, Dillon Johnson ran for two touchdowns and No. 7 Washington picked apart Arizona in a 31-24 victory Saturday night.
"They were playing it safe and making us earn it, so naturally we hit the checkdowns," Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. "We know that’s our style (big plays), but it’s not always going to work out that way."
The Huskies (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) arrived in the desert with more big plays than any other team in the country.
With the Wildcats sitting back, Penix turned to underneath throws, giving his receivers opportunities to make plays after the catch.
They did, following downfield blocking and breaking tackles to turn short throws into chunk plays. Washington’s run game provided the finishing touches, scoring all four of the Huskies’ touchdowns.
Penix completed 30 of 40 passes in Washington’s 12th straight win over two seasons.
"We were obviously trying to take away the deep shot," Arizona defensive back Dalton Johnson said. "You a linebacker on a free-release back and you get outflanked sometimes."
Coming off a one-point win at Stanford, the Wildcats (3-2, 1-1) had few answers for Washington’s offense and didn’t do enough when they had the ball to pull off the upset.
Noah Fifita threw for 232 yards and three touchdowns with an interception in his first career start. He hit Tetairoa McMillan on a 10-yard touchdown pass to pull Arizona to 31-24 with 1:11 left, but Washington recovered the onside kick and converted a fourth down near midfield.
"We went back and forth, we battled, we fought," Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. "We’re a good football team, we just finished a little short in this one, maybe the next one we don’t."
Washington was in a similar position a year ago, 4-0 and in the College Football Playoff conversation. The Huskies stumbled in their first road game with a loss to UCLA and lost again to Arizona State.
Washington’s offense did its part to avoid a repeat.
Penix put the Huskies in position, picking apart the Wildcats with short throws to the sidelines. Washington’s run game finished off the drives.
Johnson ran in a 4-yard touchdown on the Huskies’ opening drive, receiver Germie Bernard scored on 3-yard run and Will Nixon added an 8-yard TD run.
Arizona’s offense got off to a sluggish start without quarterback Jayden de Laura and running back Michael Wiley, both injured last week.
Fifita found a rhythm in the second quarter, orchestrating a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped by an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Cowing. Tyler Loop’s 30-yard field goal kept the Wildcats within 21-10 at halftime.
"We had a thought process there where we were going to have to settle in on both sides and see what it was going to look like," Fisch said. "We didn’t settle in the way initially I thought we would offensively."
Washington stuck to the same script to start the second half.
Penix hit Josh Cuevas on a 57-yard pass and Devin Culp made a spectacular 18-yard catch with a defender draped on him, putting the Huskies in scoring position. Johnson finished it off, scoring on 4-yard run to put Washington up 28-10.
Fifita hit McMillan on an 8-yard touchdown pass to pull Arizona to 28-17, but threw an ill-advised interception on a flip pass while in the grasp of a defender.
One issue that helped slow Washington down and give Arizona opportunities was penalties.
The Huskies had several key penalties that put the offense in a hole or gave the Wildcats extra yards. Washington finished with 12 penalties for 125 yards.
"The thing on both sides of the ball, we’ve got to be better with penalties still," DeBoer said. "If there’s a gray area, we have to make sure we’re not in it."
Washington: The Huskies showed off their offensive versatility, taking what the defense gave them to pull out a road win before preparing for a showdown with No. 9 Oregon in two weeks.
Arizona: The Wildcats had some good moments offensively despite missing two key players, but had no real answer for Penix and the Huskies’ short-throwing offense.
Washington: Has an off week before hosting No. 9 Oregon in one of the most anticipated Pac-12 games of the season.
Arizona: Plays at No. 8 Southern California next Saturday.