Washington wasn’t surprised by the physicality of its game against Utah on Saturday night. The Huskies talked about it repeatedly in the days leading up to their Pac-12 opener, and their 21-7 victory didn’t play out much differently than anticipated.
That’s why defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said UW’s players were both exhilarated and drained after the win.
“We just know it’s going to be a cage fight because they’re going to fight back,” Lake said, “and we know we’re going to fight back.”
But while both UW and Utah traded big hits, only the Utes had players called for targeting. Starting strong safety Marquise Blair and backup defensive tackle Leki Fotu were both ejected from the game.
“I think it’s awesome that a lot of people think physical football is over, but we teach the strike zone correctly, just like the Seattle Seahawks do,” Lake said. “If you lead with your shoulder and keep your head out of it, you can still hit people and have some violent big time hits.”
Blair was flagged after appearing to launch himself head first at Myles Gaskin in the second quarter, while Fotu was disqualified after a hit on Browning in the third quarter.
UW was leading 14-7 at the time of Fotu’s penalty and had just regained possession thanks to a fumble forced by JoJo McIntosh. Browning was intercepted on the play, but the targeting call kept the drive alive.
The Huskies eventually scored on a 6-yard pass from Browning to Ty Jones. While Jones was initially ruled out of bounds, a review showed he got his knee down in the end zone. The touchdown produced the final score, 21-7.
Head coach Chris Petersen said the Huskies work on tackling technique “morning, noon and night.”
“We work on it. We talk about it,” he said. “We’re not going to be perfect out there. Receivers change at the last second. Their pad level and backs are moving and sometimes that happens.
“But I think it shows up certainly more times than it doesn’t in terms of how much time we spend on that.”
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the Utes also focus on avoiding targeting calls.
“We harp on it,” he said. “Teach it a certain way, but I guess we didn’t teach it well enough. It has an effect on the team when you lose good players, but you have to have ‘next man up’ mentality.”
Utah’s crowd — the sixth-largest in school history — wanted a targeting call on UW’s Byron Murphy after his hit on Britain Covey late in the second quarter. But even as boos rained down from the stands, Murphy’s shoulder-first shot didn’t draw a flag.
“It’s more satisfaction of our guys executing because they work on it over and over and over,” Lake said. “And for our guys to be able to execute it and not hit anybody illegally, it’s just awesome to watch.”
The defense also forced three turnovers and held Utah to 218 yards of total offense.
“(The defense) turned up the dial,” Petersen said. “We got their best when we needed their best. … I thought we tackled well. Really, really physical. It wasn’t one guy.”
The Utes twice had a chance to pull within a touchdown late.
On UW’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Pita Tonga intercepted a Browning pass and returned it to the 11-yard line. The Utes couldn’t capitalize, though, and turned the ball over on downs at the Huskies’ 2-yard line.
Utah then forced a three-and-out and drove to the Huskies’ 14-yard line on the ensuing possession. But penalties once again hurt the Utes. An illegal substitution and a holding penalty forced a 4th-and-16 and they again turned the ball over on downs.
“That’s what we expected to happen,” said cornerback Jordan Miller. “We don’t ever expect to get scored on down here. … Making plays on the football and then stopping the run. That’s what we got to do.”