SAN FRANCISCO — As the home stadium of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park has hosted its share of memorable games, many of them involving athletes such as Barry Bonds and Tim Lincecum. A statue of Willie Mays greets pedestrians on nearby Third Street.
Friday night’s Fight Hunger Bowl, played before a flat crowd of 34,136 on an awkwardly configured gridiron, lacked such star power.
But there will be no convincing the Washington Huskies that this postseason foray didn’t mean something. The Huskies certainly played like it did, shaking off the departure of coach Steve Sarkisian, the uncertainty of the future, a disciplinary suspension and any distractions that may have surfaced in connection with the pending Tosh Lupoi investigation.
For three-plus hours in San Francisco, none of it mattered. And so the Huskies left with a 31-16 victory over BYU, putting an end to any speculation that a three-week span of dysfunction might doom them.
For the first time since the 2000 season, the Huskies are winners of nine games, finishing the season at 9-4. Interim coach Marques Tuiasosopo, whose future employment situation is uncertain, was UW’s quarterback the last time it won this many games.
“I think it means a lot to the program,” said senior quarterback Keith Price. “It means a lot to the players. It’s a certain expectation that we set tonight.”
Tuiasosopo said it’s a victory he’ll cherish for a long time.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said of the opportunity to coach his alma mater in a bowl game.
The Huskies were far from flawless against the Cougars (8-5), a formidable opponent for a bowl game involving such little fanfare. UW looked more or less like itself without Sarkisian calling plays, with plenty of carries for running back Bishop Sankey (21 carries for 95 yards and two touchdowns before he left the game with an apparent injury), and a fairly conservative passing game consisting mostly of throws to the perimeter.
Price, in his final game as UW’s quarterback, completed 17 of 22 passes for 123 yards, a touchdown and an interception but left the game in the fourth quarter after taking a hard hit to the ribs. Backup Cyler Miles finished the game.
UW led 21-16 at halftime despite gaining only 145 yards of total offense (the Huskies finished with 319) to 297 for BYU. But the Cougars settled three times for field goals after productive drives, and UW used a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by freshman John Ross to swing momentum after the Cougars had tied the game at 7.
Price led UW on a 10-play, 62-yard touchdown drive to begin the second half, connecting with Austin Seferian-Jenkins on a 16-yard touchdown pass with the Huskies facing third-and-9. It was the 12th game this season that UW’s starting offense scored on its first possession of the second half. The only game in which that didn’t happen was UW’s 56-0 victory over Idaho State, a game in which the second-string offense started the second half.
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was a problem – he carried 31 times for 133 yards – but the Cougars’ inconsistent passing game kept them from putting together many drives of worth in the second half. Hill completed 25 of his 48 pass attempts but was under constant pressure from UW pass rushers.
BYU’s best chance to change the complexion of the game came when Price threw an ugly interception to Robertson Daniel late in the third quarter, which Daniel returned to UW’s 11-yard line before a personal-foul penalty backed BYU up to the 26.
Three plays went nowhere, including a receiver reverse pass by Cody Hoffman to Hill that was broken up. BYU kicker Justin Sorensen missed a 44-yard field goal, and the Huskies escaped that possession without paying for Price’s pick.
On the next possession, Price took a big hit to his ribs after scrambling to try to pick up a first down. He went into the locker room for X-rays and did not play again.
It didn’t matter. Miles highlighted a drive that ended with a Travis Coons field goal – that accounted for the final margin – by rushing for 32 yards to set up Coons’ attempt.
The way UW’s defense played, anyone could have lined up under center for the Huskies in the second half. BYU didn’t score after halftime, and managed just 176 yards of total offense in the second half.
Huskies defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha sacked Hill three times, bringing his season total to 13. UW didn’t seem to miss senior safety Will Shamburger, who was sent home from the trip earlier this week for a violation of team rules. Tre Watson replaced him in the lineup and was credited with six pass breakups.
After the game, Seferian-Jenkins said he will enter the NFL draft, an expected decision.
Sankey, who also has NFL prospects, isn’t as sure.
“As of right now, no decision has been made,” said the junior running back, who set UW’s single-season rushing record. He said he’ll decide “next week or so” whether to return for his senior season.
If he doesn’t come back, he picked a decent way to go out.