The most important punt return of Dante Pettis’ career began with a dangerous backtrack, one he feared his coach would admonish. It ended with a leisurely stroll into the end zone. And it will be remembered as the decisive play in a most harrowing victory for the No. 4 Washington Huskies on Saturday afternoon.
When the junior receiver settled under Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky’s kick late in the fourth quarter of this deadlocked matchup of top-20 teams, he saw he had more space than usual. This was expected: Wishnowsky, the Pac-12’s top punter, was kicking from the back of his own end zone, and Pettis knew that meant a hurried punt and slower coverage.
Pettis caught the ball at UW’s 42-yard line, and he did have some room. But eluding the first Utah defender required him to retreat five yards. This instilled understandable urgency.
“I was kind of scared, because I knew if I lost five yards and got tackled right there, coach Pete would have been pretty mad,” Pettis said. “I had to slip out of that somehow.”
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He did, breaking that tackle attempt as he made his way to the right sideline. Only one more Utah player got a hand on him, and there was no doubt for the final 35 yards: He was gone, scanning for penalty flags (there weren’t any) as he sauntered across the goal line with the decisive touchdown in Washington’s 31-24 victory over the 17th-ranked Utes before a sellout crowd of 47,801 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Three minutes and 25 seconds remained after Pettis’ 58-yard score, which was enough time for the Utes and quarterback Troy Williams to march to Washington’s 26-yard line. But Williams, the ex-Husky, was sacked by blitzing linebacker Keishawn Bierria on third-and-6, and his desperation heave on fourth-and-11 sailed out of the back of the end zone.
That, after 60 minutes of stress, three game-changing defensive penalties and high drama befitting the atmosphere, was that.
“That’s a hard-fought win,” said Bierria, who finished with four tackles and UW’s only sack. “We fought for four (quarters). We made some plays, they made some plays. That’s football. But we got out and got a win.”
Washington remains unbeaten (8-0, 5-0 in Pac-12) and in contention for a College Football Playoff berth. The CFP will release its first ranking of the season on Tuesday. The Huskies will almost certainly be among the initial top four.
But this victory required more mental fortitude than any other this season, with the possible exception of UW’s overtime win at Arizona. Even in that game, though, the Huskies never trailed in the second half.
They did on Saturday, their first such deficit of the season. After UW took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, Utah scored the final 10 points of the first half, then took a 17-14 lead when Williams found receiver Siaosi Wilson for a 6-yard touchdown pass.
But the Huskies responded right away, quarterback Jake Browning capping a quick, 75-yard scoring drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to receiver John Ross, his second of the game. Tailback Myles Gaskin, who finished with 151 yards on 19 carries, keyed the drive with gains of 19, 16 and 26 yards on the first three plays.
“Myles did a couple spin moves that were highlight-tape material,” said Browning, who completed 12 of 20 passes for 186 yards with two touchdowns and his third interception of the season. “That’s a good tackling team. Very physical. So to do that against Utah is big.”
Utah (7-2, 4-2) mostly achieved its offensive success via the legs of senior running back Joe Williams, who finished with 172 yards on 35 carries. And each of Utah’s three touchdown drives were aided by personal-foul penalties committed by the Huskies on third down.
The first seemed particularly costly. After Troy Williams was dropped for a 2-yard loss on a third-and-goal run from UW’s 1-yard line, Huskies linebacker Azeem Victor was penalized for taunting the Utes quarterback. That gave Utah a first down at the 2-yard line, and the Utes scored two plays later.
Likewise, the Huskies appeared to have stuffed Joe Williams on a third-down run at the 1-yard line during Utah’s first possession of the second half, but Victor was penalized for grabbing Williams’ face mask. Two plays later, touchdown.
And on Utah’s game-tying touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, Troy Williams threw incomplete on third-and-11 from the Utes’ 36-yard line … but Psalm Wooching was called for roughing the passer, and Williams threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moeai four plays later.
“I think our defense swelled up and did a nice job, until we got a couple stupid penalties,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said, adding: “I thought we’d have a little more poise than that.”
The Huskies were plenty poised on the possession immediately preceding Pettis’ big return. Browning had pinned the Utes at their 1-yard line with a left-footed pooch punt. Two runs by Joe Williams gained a total of two yards. Troy Williams missed his receiver on third-and-8. The punt team took the field.
Stymied all game by Wishnowsky’s brilliance, Pettis finally got his chance.
“That guy was a good punter. Best I’ve seen,” said Pettis, UW’s career leader in punt-return touchdowns with five. “The ball would just hang up in the air forever. It was hard to really judge where the ball was really going. (But) his leg paid off for us in the end.”