After Washington beat Utah 21-7 in September, running back Myles Gaskin knew the Utes would be in the Pac-12 championship game. He said it with certainty on Tuesday, like it couldn’t have worked out any other way.
Asked why, his explanation was simple: Utah is just that good.
“When we played them, they played all the way until the end,” he said. “Even when it was kind of in-hand, they were still fighting hard. It was very impressive.”
On Friday, UW will face Utah at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. for the Pac-12 championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl. And none of the other Huskies seemed surprised at their opponent, either.
There’s nothing that stands out about Utah now that UW weren’t aware of before, Gaskin said. The Huskies knew what they were walking into the first time around. There’s the Utes’ tough, physical defense, their run-first offense.
“We played over there, real crazy environment,” Gaskin said. “But those guys love to play hard-nosed football and that’s the challenge of this week. We love that, too, so it should be a good challenge, a lot of fun. I”m excited.”
UW and Utah have the top two defenses in the Pac-12. The Huskies are first, allowing 16.5 points and 311.3 yards per game. The Utes give up 19.3 points and 315.8 per game.
Unsurprisingly, the first matchup stood out for its physicality. Two Utah players were ejected for targeting, while UW’s defensive backs laid out several hits that defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said could be used by the NCAA to show proper technique.
This time around, the Huskies expect more of the same.
“They have some of the best D-linemen in the conference,” said tight end Drew Sample. “That’s something that’s going to be a challenge for us. We pride ourselves in our O-Line and our tight ends. And so we’re expecting a challenge. We’re excited for it. We know we have to go get stuff done.”
Even though the Huskies won the first time around, Sample said there’s still plenty of improvements to make. They converted just 5-of-13 third downs, for one thing.
“I think we really hurt ourselves at some points and they did some things,” Sample said. “We know they’re probably not going to do the same things. So for us, it’s about what we do, making sure we’re right in all our details and that type of thing. We know it’s going to be a physical game. We’re ready for that and we’re excited for it.”
While some of Utah’s personnel has changed since the teams last played — quarterback Jason Shelley and running back Armand Shyne have replaced injured starters — quarterback Jake Browning said the Utes have had a championship-level defense since the beginning of the season.
“It’s not surprising that they haven’t switched up a bunch of what they’re doing because they do it really well,” Browning said. “They always up their third down and red zone packages. Other than that, they kind of do what they do and what they’ve been like for a while.”
While several players on the Huskies’ roster have been the conference championship before — UW won the title in 2016 — Utah’s players lack that experience.
Husky head coach Chris Petersen waved off any advantage, but Lake wasn’t so quick to dismiss the importance.
“We have a lot of guys on our roster that played in that game,” Lake said. “Our whole coaching staff coached in that game. I think that is a slight advantage that we have: That we’ve been there, we know the environment, we know what that field’s like, what the crowd’s going to be like.
“Our younger guys can lean on our vets and go, ‘Hey, don’t worry. This is going to happen. This is a big environment but just do what you were coached to do and it’s all going to take care of itself.’
Gaskin has tried to put the game in perspective for the players who weren’t with the Huskies two years ago.
“Maybe a little more lights, maybe a little more media,” he said, “but we’re playing football. We played these guys before. Calm down. Let’s have fun with it.”
Sample still remembers what it felt like to lift the the Pac-12 trophy. There’s been nothing, really, that’s compared since then. This isn’t an opportunity UW is taking for granted, he said, especially when you add in the chance to go to the Rose Bowl.
While it’s a big stage, Sample said, it’s not the first one the Huskies have been on this season. Some of the Huskies haven’t played in the championship before, but several games — including last week’s Apple Cup victory that clinched the Pac-12 North — have been close to that level.
“I think we just try and make sure we don’t try to do too much,” Sample said .”I think that’s the biggest thing in big games, just try and do your job the best you can. I think we’ll be in a really good spot if we’re able to do that.”
For his part, Browning has tried to prepare the younger players for a quieter environment than they might be used to. The Huskies have played in front of some raucous crowds this season, including Utah’s.
“It’s not necessarily the loudest place you’re ever going to go play a conference championship game,” Browning said. “It’s going to be super loud and packed but it’s pretty far away from Seattle or even Salt Lake.
“Playing Colorado (in 2016), it was, not in a bad way, one of the quieter games so you kind of have to be prepared to bring your own energy. The stadium is not going to be super juiced or packed.”
While the Huskies are remaining focused on Utah and the championship game, it’s difficult not to look ahead to what they’re playing for: UW’s first Rose Bowl berth since 2001.
This season has had its ups-and-downs. After starting the year with College Football Playoff hopes, the Huskies lost three games and even briefly dropped out of the top-25.
Still, Gaskin said, they never lost their hunger. And in the end, they ended up in Pac-12 title game, exactly where they wanted to be all along. For defensive back Jordan Miller, who grew up in Oceanside, Calif. near Pasadena, the potential of a career-ending Rose Bowl appearance couldn’t be more perfect.
“It’s just a big tradition,” he said. “That’s something I watched when I was younger … That’s the dream right there, right now. That’s how I want to close out.”