By Morris Phillips
SANTA CLARA–If the Pac-12 Championship Game were to be decided without the benefit of an offensive touchdown, of course the opportunistic, hard hitting Washington Huskies would be in position to win it.
But along that same line of thinking, the Utah Utes would likely be in position to steal the outcome of such a defensive-leaning contest.
And that was the storyline on Friday, as Washington seized a 10-3 decision over Utah, in the second, lowest-scoring contest in the history of college football’s conference championship games.
“We played them before, watched them on tape get better, and you got two kind of old school defenses that don’t give up much,” Washington head coach Chris Petersen said.
TV ratings may have suffered, and the referees and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott weren’t welcomed by the second smallest crowd in the eight year history of the game, but this was a war between two top defenses and their offensive counterparts, desperate not to make a mistake that could prevent their defense from winning the game on a big play.
That play came in the final minutes of the third quarter, and after the Utes fought admirably to gain a 3-3 tie despite committing a pair of turnovers, and operating with Jason Shelley, an inexperienced redshirt freshman quarterback and a run game that the Huskies had rendered useless.
With 1:05 remaining in the quarter, Shelley’s well-positioned pass attempt to Siaosi Mariner could have been caught, but instead bounded out of Mariner’s hands then off his leg and up in the air. Washington corner Byron Murphy found himself with the ball accessible and 66 yards of friendly turf behind it.
“The opportunity was there,” Murphy recounted. “I just had to make sure I took it.”
Murphy’s interception and return–the game’s only touchdown–became the decider as the corner’s teammates provided one or two, key downfield blocks.
“When I saw him cut back, I was like, ‘please keep going,'” Petersen said.
Washington’s offense–explosive and prolific two years ago, and now conservative and pragmatic despite having the same quarterback, senior Jake Browning–remained content to play a supporting role before and after Murphy’s game-changer.
The Huskies mounted four lengthy drives that amounted to one Payton Henry 29-yard field goal a couple of minutes before halftime. More interested in first downs (19), than points (3), Browning directed the offense beautifully with the exception of Javelin Guidry’s interception at the start of the second quarter.
Washington’s 306 yards in total offense wouldn’t normally impress anyone. But Petersen was appreciative, and he commended Browning and the offense in the face of the Husky fanbase that expected more, especially from Browning.
“It’s a hard process when you get anointed before you earn anything,” Petersen said of Washington’s 10-3 season that didn’t result in a National Championship berth, but sends the Huskies to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for the first time since 2000.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Petersen said.
Utah failed to exceed their previous post-season history that’s littered with appearances in minor bowl games, many in bowls that no longer exist, with the exception being their 2005 Fiesta Bowl appearance under Urban Meyer and quarterback Alex Smith. But with less than 200 yards in total offense, the Utes suffered a painful outcome, a couple of significant casualties, including top receiver Britain Covey, who was injured returning the second half kickoff.
Covey would watch the rest of the game from the sidelines needing the assistance of crutches.
“We made some plays, we missed some opportunities,” Utes offensive linemen Jackson Barton said. “We’re a good football team. We couldn’t pull it out tonight.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham complained noticeably after the Utes’ final offensive snap, an incomplete pass on 4th and 12 again involving Shelley, Mariner and Murphy. This time Murphy clearly contacted Mariner before the ball arrived, and a pass interference call or a catch would have set up Utah with a first down in Washington territory with a minute remaining. But the refs declined to make and call, denying the Utes an opportunity to tie and possibly force overtime.
“I don’t know what I can say. Wouldn’t you be upset?” Whittingham said.
Upset? Sure. But maybe resigned as well. In two ballgames against the Huskies this season, Utah scored a grand total of 10 points (21-7 loss at Salt Lake City on September 15).
A correct call by the officials flagging Murphy would have produced a first down, but ultimately could have compounded the frustration for Whittingham and the Utes.