The 10th-ranked Washington football team took a couple of hard shots to the chin from Utah on Saturday night in Salt Lake City and barely blinked.
The hometown Utes, however, were left staggering after getting flagged for two costly targeting penalties that stripped them of a pair of key starters through ejections and a goal-line interception that was nullified, and they were handed a 21-7 defeat in the Pac-12 opener for both teams.
In a grind-it out game, the Huskies’ running back Myles Gaskin rushed a workmanlike 30 times for 143 yards and a touchdown—moving him into seventh place all-time on the conference career rushing ladder—and quarterback Jake Browning threw and ran for touchdowns.
Yet this one was all about big defensive hits—the Huskies (2-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) delivered a bunch, all legal, while Utah (2-1, 0-1) paid a stiff price for its aggressive play.
“Physical, physical, physical,” UW coach Chris Petersen whistled. “I thought it would be a defensive game and it was. I was proud of our guys for showing up.”
The Huskies were leading 14-7 late in the second quarter when Utah safety Marquise Blair made vicious contact with Gaskin at the Huskies 10 and was penalized for leading with his helmet, receiving an automatic ejection.
Midway through the third quarter, Utes defensive tackle Leki Fotu struck Browning hard in the chin with his helmet while a teammate hit the quarterback low and clean. The resulting targeting penalty negated a Browning interception at the Utah 3, sent Fotu off the field for the rest of the evening and enabled the Huskies to go in and score their final touchdown and build the two-score cushion. Browning had an emotional response to the flag, lifting up his helmet and yelling his approval, which was rare for him.
Washington delivered its share of punishing blows but each of them passed muster with the rulebook. Right before halftime, cornerback Byron Murphy leveled Utah receiver Britain Covey and left him writhing on the ground near midfield, but he used his shoulder, which made the play a legal hit. Near the end of the game safety JoJo McIntosh left Covey dazed with a thundering yet permissible shoulder tackle.
“They’re a lot like us,” UW linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said of the Utes. “I’m pretty beat up. Every time we play them, it’s just a brutal football game.”
The Huskies received superlative play from their entire secondary throughout the night, with safety Taylor Rapp recovering a pair of fumbles and McIntosh forcing one of them, Jordan Miller intercepting a pass and forcing the other fumble, and Murphy breaking up four passes and picking up a tackle for loss.
While the Huskies survived a difficult conference road game against a top-tier opponent, they still have their issues—this team continues to do some dumb things on offense. Foremost was Browning’s fourth-quarter blunder, an interception under pressure to Utah’s Pita Tonga, a 300-pound defensive tackle who would have scored had he not carelessly flung the football out of bounds untouched near the goal line.
The Huskies also lost starting center Nick Harris, back after sitting out the previous game against North Dakota, to another injury at the end of the third quarter.
Washington began the game by making the Utes go three-and-out on the first series and then marched 65 yards and scored on its first possession, showing plenty of energy early in the nationally televised game on ESPN. Gaskin got a block from pulling left guard Luke Wattenberg to squirt through the line, broke up the right side, and got shoved and flew over the pylon to score from 38 yards out.
Utah had its only offensive success near the end of the first quarter, with Zack Moss’ 4-yard scoring run tying the game at 7 to cap an 80-yard drive. Quarterback Tyler Huntley’s 28-yard scramble on third down to the UW 11 was the key play. That was it for successful Utah scoring drives.
The Huskies began the second quarter like they did the first, moving patiently for a score. They used a reverse to spring wide receiver Andre Baccellia loose for 37 yards up the left sideline to the Utah 2, and Browning dove in from the 1 for a 14-7 lead.
Washington scored its final points after Miller separated the ball from Covey, by now a human punching back and noticeably wobbly. Rapp recovered the ball on the Utah 44. The Huskies were four plays into the possession when Browning threw an interception near the goal line that was erased by Fotu’s targeting infraction. Five plays later, Browning hit a diving Ty Jones, a Salt Lake City product playing in his hometown before friends and family, with a 6-yard TD pass with 8:37 left in the third quarter.
The rest of the game was comical rather than memorable for both teams. Under pressure, Browning threw his ill-advised interception to Tonga, who had clear sailing but inexplicably lost the ball and fumbled out of bounds at the UW 11. Utah squandered this opportunity when a wide-open Connor Haller, a tight end, dropped a fourth-down pass at the 2.
Late in the game, Huskies punter Race Porter shanked one 21 yards, setting up Utah on the Washington 28. But the Utes couldn’t capitalize.
The UW mistakes were overshadowed in a big way by the big hits in a tough environment. The Huskies walked away sore but winners.
“It was as physical of a game as we’ve been in for a long time,” Petersen said. "And those were all legal hits for us because we tackled with our shoulder pads."