These were the Washington Huskies like you haven’t seen them, at least not this year, at least not since an undefeated regular season became more of an expectation than a dream.
Such aspirations now are mere memories.
UW’s winning streak vanished into the brisk Montlake air, rendered obsolete on Saturday night by a USC Trojans outfit with a wunderkind quarterback and a ferocious defense that made the Huskies appear mortal for an entire four quarters.
So the surging Trojans shrugged off a sellout crowd at Husky Stadium, pushed the home team around and won, 26-13, to hand the No. 4-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season and muddy Washington’s chances of inclusion in the College Football Playoff.
The Trojans dominated defensively, holding UW to season lows in rushing yards (17 net) and total offense (276), sacking Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Browning three times and hurrying him frequently.
“When you turn the ball over two times, only score one touchdown and get in the red zone and can’t finish,” Browning surmised, “then you’re not going to beat anybody in this league.”
At 9-1 and 6-1 in Pac-12 play, the Huskies’ primary goal now must be simply winning the Pac-12 North, which they can do by winning their final two games, at home against Arizona State and at Washington State in the Apple Cup.
And losses by No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Michigan on Saturday leave open the possibility that UW could climb back into CFP consideration.
But the Huskies likely will have to do it without one of their best players. Linebacker Azeem Victor, the team’s leading tackler and an all-conference candidate, sustained what appeared to be a serious injury to his right leg while making a tackle in the second quarter, though coach Chris Petersen didn’t have an update on Victor’s status following the game.
Victor left the field on a trainer’s cart, an air cast supporting his right leg, his right fist raised to acknowledge a concerned crowd of 72,364.
Of course, they already were worried. The score was tied 3-3 at the time of Victor’s injury, and Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold capped that drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Darreus Rogers to give UW its first deficit in a home game this season.
The Trojans (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) scored again just before halftime, tailback Ronald Jones running in for a 5-yard touchdown to cap a nine-play, 81-yard drive highlighted by three Darnold completions that netted 21 or more yards.
“They did their job better,” said UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria.
Darnold, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman, was a problem all night. He found receivers running open through UW’s typically stout defense, taking advantage of a pass rush still missing stud linebacker Joe Mathis.
When he was pressured, Darnold dodged and darted to create throwing lanes, and he finished with 287 yards on 23-of-33 passing.
“You can see how he can buy time with his legs and does a good job keeping his eyes downfield,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowki said. “He really hurt us doing that on third down. We could not get off the field in the first half like we wanted.”
Darnold also gave the Huskies a chance to get back in this one. It was after UW scored its first touchdown, when star receiver John Ross juked star USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson out of his shoes, causing Jackson to fall down as Ross sprinted up the left sideline by himself. Browning hit him in stride for a 70-yard touchdown, trimming USC’s lead to 17-13 with 8:23 left in the third quarter.
Two plays later, Darnold looked for Rogers on a slant route, but Rogers fell down and UW safety Taylor Rapp intercepted the pass at USC’s 33-yard line. It appeared to be an important momentum shift. But the Huskies stalled after moving the ball to USC’s 19-yard line, and Cameron Van Winkle’s 38-yard field-goal try was blocked.
That was the opening USC needed to again take a two-score lead, this time on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Darnold to tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe to give the Trojans a 24-13 lead.
Meanwhile, Browning and UW’s offense failed to re-create the masterful efficiency that defined the team’s unbeaten start. Browning, the national leader in passing efficiency, was harassed and pressured all night, and finished 17-of-36 passing for 259 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions — both by Jackson — the second coming late in the fourth quarter and serving as the Huskies’ death knell.
Sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive season, but finished with only 51 yards on 15 carries. USC’s defensive front was physical and athletic, knocking UW’s line backward and disrupting any offensive rhythm the Huskies hoped to establish.
UW got off to a somewhat promising start. They used 10 plays to drive 45 yards to USC’s 26-yard line on their second possession, but had to settle for a 43-yard Van Winkle field goal.
Before that, Darnold threw his fifth interception of the season, a pass deflected by UW’s Bierria and picked off by Rapp, the first interception of his career and the first of his two on Saturday night.
It didn’t matter. The Trojans were simply better in all phases, imposing upon the Huskies a caliber of physical dominance with which UW had not yet contended.
“In this league,” Petersen said, “if you don’t have your fastball going each week, you’ll get knocked off.”