TUCSON, Ariz. – The chart is not culpable for this heartbreak. Not by itself.
It did not cause Deontae Cooper to fumble. It did not commit 13 penalties, or allow a fake field goal for a touchdown, or fumble in the red zone, or botch an extra point. It didn’t blow coverage on a long pass to Samajie Grant that set up Arizona’s first touchdown. It didn’t snap the ball at Cyler Miles’ legs, it didn’t commit a defensive holding penalty on fourth down, and so it cannot be exclusively blamed for the Washington Huskies’ soul-crushing 27-26 loss here to No. 17 Arizona on Saturday afternoon.
But the second-guessing will begin and end with that chart, the one that Huskies coach Chris Petersen consulted with a little more than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, when he decided three kneel-downs would not sufficiently ice the clock on what should have been a feel-good victory.
In the end, Casey Skowron won the game for the Wildcats with a 47-yard field goal as time expired. But Arizona did not win this game so much as the Huskies lost it.
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They had a first down at their own 44-yard line after Miles rushed for a first down on 3rd-and-3. Arizona had one timeout remaining. When the Huskies snapped the ball on first down, there was 1:33 remaining on the clock.
A kneel-down likely would have prompted Arizona to call its final timeout with somewhere around 1:30 remaining. It would have been second down, and the Huskies could have wiped out 80 of the 90 remaining seconds simply by letting the play clock run all the way down prior to second and third down, which would have left somewhere between 6-12 seconds remaining for a fourth-down snap that could have been used on a time-consuming punt, which would have either killed the clock entirely or left Arizona with time for only one offensive play.
But Petersen’s chart told him the Huskies needed a first down. Miles signaled for the snap with 1:33 remaining – and, for some reason, with six seconds still on the play clock – and handed the ball to Cooper, a sure-handed fifth-year senior.
“We felt like we had to run the ball again to get a first down,” Petersen said. “They had one timeout left. That’s the information we got.”
“On our chart,” offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said, “we were good there. We needed to get a first down on our chart.”
Right or wrong, that decision backfired. Cooper fumbled. Arizona recovered with 1:23 to play at UW’s 45-yard line. And after six plays gained 15 yards, Skowron drilled the 47-yard field goal, a dagger through the Huskies’ hearts that spoiled what was otherwise their most impressive performance of the season.
“I feel like this is the best we’ve played, as a team,” said senior defensive end Andrew Hudson, who had seven tackles and a sack. “Everyone was in it, encouraging one another. … Just to end it with that, the score, it just sucks. It stings a little bit. Actually, a lot.”
The Huskies (6-5, 2-5 in Pac-12) will end the regular season without a victory over a ranked opponent, but it didn’t have to be that way. They outgained the Wildcats 504-375. Their offense was rhythmic, their running game effective. Washington converted 13-of-22 third-down chances. Arizona managed only 3-of-15, quarterback Anu Solomon completing only 17 of his 39 pass attempts.
UW led 17-7 after Dwayne Washington rumbled 66 yards for a touchdown – he rushed for a career-best 148 yards on 19 carries – with 5:16 to play in the first half. And that was after the Huskies had missed a field goal, and after Miles had fumbled the ball away at Arizona’s 14-yard line.
Those mistakes just never went away. Freshman safety Budda Baker broke up a Solomon fourth-down pass on Arizona’s next possession – but Brandon Beaver was called for defensive holding to extend the drive, one of 13 penalties that cost UW 111 yards.
And after the Huskies had stopped Arizona again, and the Wildcats appeared content to settle for a field goal, they snapped the ball directly to Skowron and he ran past an unprepared Huskies defense for an 18-yard touchdown.
“We had to kind of load up and that was kind of field-goal range, and we really wanted to get that one,” Petersen said. “And they did a nice job on that.”
Arizona (8-2, 5-2) tacked on another touchdown before halftime after Miles scrambled to scoop up a bad snap, ran backward and dropped the ball on the ground. The Wildcats recovered at UW’s 19-yard line, scored a touchdown four plays later and led 21-17 at halftime despite UW outgaining them 347-193.
A botched extra point marred Washington’s 1-yard touchdown run to put UW ahead 26-21 late in the third quarter. And despite more solid play from UW’s defense, two Skowron field goals in the fourth quarter allowed the Wildcats to escape.
“We shouldn’t lose,” said senior defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha. “We’ve got all the tools, talent, ability. There’s no reason for that.”
For this preventable heartbreak, they can blame only themselves.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple