University of Washington

Huskies lean on defense to down Utah and win Pac-12 championship

Washington’s Peyton Henry, left, is congratulated by Race Porter (46) after kicking a field goal against Utah during the first half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Washington’s Peyton Henry, left, is congratulated by Race Porter (46) after kicking a field goal against Utah during the first half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar) AP

It was an appropriate way for Washington to score the Pac-12 championship’s only touchdown.

With the game tied 3-3 late in the third quarter, Utah quarterback Jason Shelley launched a pass intended for Saiosi Mariner along the sideline. Mariner slid in an attempt to make the catch, but bobbled the ball. It bounced off his ankle and landed in the hands of Husky defensive back Byron Murphy, who returned it 66-yards for a touchdown.

With that single play, Murphy gave the Huskies a 10-3 victory at Levi’s Stadium and their second conference title in three years. Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake could only shake his head when asked to describe the moment, crediting Murphy’s “unbelievable ball skills.”

“Which he was born with,” Lake said. “I don’t know how he has them. We saw them in recruiting and we’re thankful we got him here. He tracked the ball, plucked it. Our job on defense is to score and get the ball back and he went and scored.”

Murphy, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, saw the opportunity as soon as Mariner slipped.

“I made sure I took it,” he said. “Going in, we knew as a defense we had to come to play. This whole week of practice, the defense has been going hard in practice, knowing (Utah) was going to come to play. The defense had to play better throughout this whole game.”

As for head coach Chris Petersen?

“I’m just glad he didn’t get caught,” he said.

On Utah’s ensuing possession, Jordan Miller followed Murphy’s lead and intercepted Shelley at UW’s 6-yard line.

Thanks to Murphy, the Huskies were leading 10-3 entering the fourth quarter. They had a promising possession going, moving deep into Utah territory with a 17-play, 73-yard drive that lasted 10 minutes and 3 seconds. It ended with a chance to put more points on the board, but Peyton Henry’s 38-yard field goal attempt was blocked.

Utah then took over at its 21 yard line with 5:10 left in the game. UW needed its defense again, and it was no surprise for Murphy came through. He intercepted Shelley’s third pass attempt to return the ball to the Huskies at Utah’s 36-yard line with 4:27 left in the game. His second interception tied the Pac-12 championship game record set by Rapp in 2016.

“He’s a baller,” Miller said of Bryant. “He’s a playmaker. He makes plays on the ball, I’ve been saying that since he got here. It’s no surprise. I knew if they threw his way he was going to make a play sometime or another and he did.”

Said Myles Bryant: “I think he proved to you guys that he’s the best corner in America. He just does it every week. He was able to put points on the board for us. He ended up getting a late pick and a late (pass breakup) to seal the game.”

Afterward, with a Rose Bowl berth assured, JoJo McIntosh and Brandon Wellington sat on the edge of the stage where the Pac-12 trophy was presented, long-stemmed roses between their teeth. Shouts of “Give me that Rose!” could be heard as the Huskies congregated in the end zone, pulling on their championship T-shirts and hats.

“It feels amazing,” Taylor Rapp said on the field, yelling to be heard over celebratory cheering and UW’s band. “All three years I’ve been here we’ve been to three New Year’s Six bowls so it’s been an incredible run.”

UW and Utah entered the game with the conference’s top two defenses, and it showed. The Huskies were allowing 16.5 points and 311.3 yards per game, while Utah was allowing 19.3 points and 315.8 yards per game.

“We knew they were a tough, physical team,” Bryant said. “They play tough defense just like we do. It was really just going to come down to who would get the most turnovers.”

The Huskies won that battle, finishing with three interceptions to Utah’s one. There is a kind of competition between the Utes’ and Huskies’ defenses, Bryant said, especially when it comes to the defensive backs.

In both games this year, UW came out on top.

“To win this game, the defense was going to have to come out and play their best,” Lake said. “We have so much respect for (Utah’s) defense. I watch their defense. I study their defense to see what they’re doing.

“I’m always looking to see which DBs they’re recruiting. … I think that’s a challenge. I think our defense is like, ‘Hey, we’re the best defense.’ No disrespect to them. I know they’re great but we knew we had to play our best game.”

UW held Utah to 188 yards of total offense, including 51 rushing yards, and the Utes converted just 4-of-12 third downs. The Huskies finished with 2.0 sacks, 6.0 tackles for loss and five pass breakups to go along with their three interceptions.

The Huskies led just 3-0 at halftime, although it seemed like they should’ve been ahead by more. They controlled time of possession 19:53 to 10:07 in the first half. The Utes had just 61 total yards at the break, and the Huskies had more tackles for loss (four) than Utah had first downs (three).

UW’s offense was rolling in comparison: 162 total yards, 10 first downs, 4.2 yards per play compared to Utah’s 2.9. But on their first offensive possession of the second half, the Utes tied the score 3-3 on a 53-yard field goal from Matt Gay that just cleared the crossbar.

Then, trailing by just a touchdown at the end of the fourth quarter, the Utes had a chance to tie the game. They drove into UW’s side of the field, reaching the 42 yard line before the Huskies came up with the stop on fourth down — a fitting ending for a defensive battle.

It was Murphy, of course, who knocked the ball away from Mariner to cement the victory. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was furious on the sideline, demanding a pass interference call, but it never came.

On Sunday, UW will find out its Rose Bowl opponent during the College Football Playoff Selection Show.

In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but celebrate.

“We’re going to enjoy this for sure for a couple of days,” Lake said, “if not a week.”

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Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for PennLive.com. A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.

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