Upon future reflection, the Washington Huskies will surely wonder what could have been in this 34-23 loss to the 13th-ranked Utah Utes.
What if they hadn’t dropped a punt snap and committed three turnovers in the first half?
What if an apparent touchdown pass on their first possession hadn’t been wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty?
What if they hadn’t been called for holding on a fourth-quarter play that would have otherwise resulted in a go-ahead, Myles Gaskin touchdown run?
What if Jake Browning hadn’t fumbled after being sacked late in the fourth quarter with the Huskies trailing by eight points?
The first three turnovers led to 14 Utah points. The penalties forced the Huskies to settle for a pair of field goals. And the ultimate consequence of those errors was a frustrating loss before a rain-soaked crowd of far fewer than the 61,420 who allegedly occupied Husky Stadium on Saturday night.
But as Browning silently fumed during postgame interviews — standard fare for the ultra-competitive freshman after any loss — he spoke the truth.
Washington wasn’t good enough to win this game, external factors aside.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to get questions about the refs and all that,” Browning said. “If you’re good enough, you don’t let the refs lose you a game. We’re not going to sit here and blame the refs.”
The Huskies (4-5, 2-4 in Pac-12) finally succumbed when Browning, on first down from UW’s 40-yard line with just fewer than three minutes remaining, was blindsided, fumbled, and Utah recovered.
The Utes, who led 31-23 at that point thanks to a 60-yard touchdown drive on their previous possession, put the game out of reach with a 36-yard Andy Phillips field goal with 57 seconds to play.
Several Huskies had a hand in this defeat. It was certainly not Dwayne Washington’s finest day. The UW tailback first fumbled after catching a short pass in the second quarter, though Utah gave it back on the next play when Huskies linebacker Travis Feeney recovered a fumble by Utes quarterback Travis Wilson. That possession ended with a 39-yard field goal by Cameron Van Winkle.
Washington appeared to redeem himself with a 32-yard rush to Utah’s 32-yard line later in the quarter. But on the next play, he caught a 3-yard pass from Browning, fumbled the ball, and Utah linebacker Gionni Paul scooped it and returned it 54 yards for a Utes touchdown to give his team a 21-6 lead.
Paul had already intercepted a bad Browning pass earlier in the quarter. He returned that one 27 yards to UW’s 8-yard line, and Utes tailback Devontae Booker scored on a 4-yard touchdown run two plays later.
“We just knew playing a team of this quality,” UW coach Chris Petersen said, “we couldn’t come in and play sloppy.”
Utah’s first touchdown came after Huskies punter Korey Durkee cold-dropped a fourth-down snap at UW’s 44-yard line (backup Tristan Vizcaino took over the punting duties thereafter). The Huskies covered the ball at their 17, Utah took over at the 32 after a personal-foul penalty, then used six plays to score a touchdown on Wilson’s 4-yard run.
After falling behind 21-6, the Huskies responded with a quick scoring drive of their own, keyed by Browning’s 53-yard completion to tight end Joshua Perkins and capped by Browning’s 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Drew Sample.
Utah added a field goal and led 24-13 at halftime.
Gaskin, who rushed for 93 yards on 20 carries, took a series of direct snaps on UW’s second possession of the third quarter, and cut Utah’s lead to 24-20 on a 10-yard touchdown run.
The Huskies had a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, and it appeared they had when Gaskin took a second-and-7 and ran 24 yards into the end zone … but the play was nullified by a holding penalty against right guard Coleman Shelton, and UW eventually settled for Van Winkle’s 49-yard field goal to pull within 24-23.
“Any time you get touchdowns called back,” Perkins said, “it’s really hard for the team to come back from. We just have to get better and learn from our mistakes.”
It was the second touchdown-killing penalty of the day for UW — sophomore receiver Brayden Lenius was penalized for setting a pick on a Browning-to-Jaydon Mickens touchdown pass on the Huskies’ opening drive.
“It’s crushing,” Petersen said. “That was huge. Having two touchdowns called back and then giving them a touchdown on offense, those are really hard to overcome, especially when you’re playing someone that’s really, really good.”
After forcing the Utes to punt following Van Winkle’s fourth-quarter field goal, Browning found Perkins for a leaping, 21-yard reception that would have put the ball at Utah’s 45. But Perkins was penalized for offensive pass interference, and the drive ultimately went nowhere. Fans booed the officials throughout the next few plays.
Perkins said he didn’t think he pushed off. Petersen, wary of reprimand, said only: “You guys saw what I saw.”
Utah took over at its 40-yard line, then drove 60 yards and scored on Wilson’s 3-yard run with 3 minutes, 27 seconds to play. Browning completed an 11-yard pass to Lenius on UW’s first play of the following drive, then fumbled it back to Utah when he was sacked on the next play.
Washington’s defense, playing without safety Budda Baker (concussion in the first quarter) and nose tackle Elijah Qualls (ankle), mostly stood its ground against the Utes. Utah averaged only 4.9 yards per play, though Booker did finish with 150 yards rushing on 34 carries.
Browning completed 23 of 39 passing for 257 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Wilson was 12 for 25 for 155 yards. And UW outgained Utah 381 to 346.
But in the end, the Huskies simply gave the ball away too many times, and couldn’t overcome the calls that went against them, questionable or not.
“We are close,” Petersen said. “And I think that’s one of the things that’s frustrating as a team. There’s a lot of closeness. It’s not good enough, (but) we’re close.”
SATURDAY: Washington at Arizona State, noon, Pac-12 Network, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM