John McGrath

McGrath: Despite near-perfect start, Huskies crumble against Utes

The words were almost out of my mouth Saturday at Husky Stadium.

“Crispest, best-looking drive of the season,” I meant to say of Washington’s initial possession against Utah.

The Huskies had covered 84 yards in nine plays, beginning with a roll-out pass from Jake Browning to tight end Drew Sample. Gain of 23, first down, and moments later Browning rolled out again, connecting with wide receiver Jaydon Mickens for a 15-yard pick-up.

Then it was Myles Gaskin’s turn. The freshman broke free to the Utah 23, setting up Browning’s 18-yard completion to Mickens and a first-and-goal opportunity inside the Utes’ 5.

There is no such thing as a sure thing on any football field, but the touchdown that followed — Browning to Mickens in the right corner of the end zone — had the look of inevitability, because the Huskies were clicking on all gears.

Utah’s No. 13 national ranking had been achieved by a defense with no weaknesses, and in the eighth start of his career Browning had the visitors back on their heels, guessing instead of knowing and generally guessing wrong.

Despite weather conditions that were awful — the forecast called for three hours of wet and chilly, and the forecast was spot-on — the crowd responded to Mickens’ touchdown with a roar that seemed to foreshadow the Huskies’ second impressive victory in two weeks.

But wait. There was a flag in the end zone, and after a brief huddle, the officials determined wide receiver Brayden Lenius had illegally boxed out on the reception. In lieu of a touchdown, the Huskies were penalized 15 yards, back to the Utah 19.

The next three plays turned out like this: A sack of Browning for a 6-yard loss, an incompletion, another incompletion.

What began as a virtually flawless scoring drive concluded with a 42-yard Cameron Van Winkle field goal. And while it could have been worse — converted field goal attempts are preferable to the alternative — the flag on Lenius set the tone for a 34-23 defeat difficult for both the Huskies and their fans to endure.

Once the touchdown-snatching penalty was called, nothing would come easy for Washington. It went on to give up a touchdown caused by a flubbed punt snap that gave Utah the ball at the UW 17. On the ensuing possession, Browning threw a pass that roverback Gionni Paul picked off and returned to the Huskies’ 8. Utah soon enjoyed a 14-3 lead.

Washington whittled the deficit down to 24-13 at the half, but on its first drive of the third quarter, the Huskies were set up with a second-and-2 at midfield and couldn’t move the chains.

Some booing was heard, but nothing compared to the boos directed at the officials for disallowing Gaskin’s 24-yard fourth-quarter touchdown because of a dubious holding penalty called on right guard Coleman Shelton.

Another presumptive seven-point score had been turned into three points by a flag, and the frustration only intensified when tight end Josh Perkins was flagged thanks to an imaginative interpretation of offensive pass interference.

Instead of a first down at the Utah 45 and obvious momentum — 9 minutes remained in the fourth quarter, more than enough time to make up a 24-23 deficit — the Huskies found themselves pushed back to their 19-yard line.

Game-changing penalties like that are difficult for head coaches to stomach, and it’s a testament to Chris Petersen’s considerable self-control that he didn’t bust any blood vessels on the sideline.

Although the controversial calls will be recalled as devastating, the Huskies can’t deny the influence their own errors had on the outcome. Between Browning’s interception and three recovered fumbles, Utah enjoyed optimum field position on three touchdown drives, which helps explain how UW outgained the visitors 381-346 in total yards and still lost by 11 points.

“Frustrating,” was a word Petersen used several times afterward, bemoaning self-inflicted mistakes that ranged from ball security to poor tackling. “We battled back, but I know we can play cleaner. It’s frustrating for everybody because it’s common-sense stuff.”

It’s frustrating, too, because the Huskies’ first drive of the game was close to perfect.