Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., was built for the pros. No wonder guys like Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy, who have NFL written all over them, play so well there.
For the second time in three years, the Washington football team followed the lead of a game-changing defensive back to a Pac-12 championship on the San Francisco 49ers’ home field, on Friday night beating Utah 10-3 in a grinding defensive scrum.
The outcome sent the 10th-ranked Huskies (10-3 overall, 7-2 league) to the Rose Bowl—their 15th trip to the coveted New Year’s Day postseason game 345 miles away in Pasadena and their first in 18 seasons—against an undetermined Big Ten team, possibly Michigan.
Murphy matched Rapp’s 2016 title-game performance against Colorado play for play and reward for reward: He intercepted two passes, returned one for a score and received the game’s most valuable player award. The only difference in their respective showings at Levi’s Stadium over 36 months was Murphy’s touchdown return, a 66-yarder late in the third quarter, decided things.
“Defense wins championships,” said Murphy, a sophomore cornerback from Scottsdale, Ariz. “We obviously made plays the whole game.”
Murphy was especially opportunistic over the game’s final 17 minutes. With 1:05 left in the third quarter and the teams tied 3-3, Utah receiver Siaosi Mariner lost his footing while reaching for a Jason Shelley pass, inadvertently deflected the ball into the air off his thigh and watched in horror as the UW defender caught it on the run and ran untouched to the end zone. Amazingly, it was the Huskies’ first defensive TD of the season.
“The receiver slipped, the ball came up and I knew I had to make the play,” said Murphy, who is expected to leave for the NFL following this season. “The opportunity was there and I made sure I took it.”
The lockdown corner wasn’t done. With 4:27 left in the contest, Murphy outran Utah’s Mariner for a pass that he turned into his second interception, setting up the UW on the Utes 36.
“He took it into his own hands tonight,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said.
The game ended with Murphy reaching over the back of Utah’s Mariner to knock a pass away near midfield. Replays appeared to show the Huskies defender make early contact, but no flags were thrown, though Utes coach Kyle Whittingham offered his opinion; he showed his great displeasure by yelling and gesturing at the officiating crew as he left the field.
The entire UW secondary was at its best against Utah (9-4, 6-3). Junior cornerback Myles Bryant and Rapp, the superlative junior free safety, each picked up sacks on Utes redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley, son of the former Huskies wide receiver by the same name.
Senior cornerback Jordan Miller came back from a pass-interference call on the very next play to intercept a Shelley ball at the UW 6 as the third quarter wound down.
Bryant even celebrated the victory by doing a nimble back flip in pads when the clock ran out.
“Coming in, we knew the defense was going to have to win the game and we were up to the challenge,” said Rapp, that 2016 Pac-12 title game MVP and also likely pro-bound next season. “We never back down.”
Offensively, each team raised a white flag. Neither team could get anything done at all. Utah had just one first down through the game’s first 28 minutes, and only three by halftime. The Utes produced a mere 61 yards of total offense in the first half, 188 for the game.
The Huskies were a little better, opening the game with a 14-play drive to the Utes 23 only to run out of downs. They drove deep into opposing territory again in the second quarter, but had a Jake Browning pass intercepted on the Utes 18 after it deflected off receiver Ty Jones.
The UW even had former All-Pac-12 and oft-injured Trey Adams start at left tackle for the first time in 18 games and Hunter Bryant, another standout working his way into shape after injury, pull a lot of snaps. But points and yards were at a premium on this night.
The game remained a shutout, unique anywhere for a college football game these days, until the UW’s Peyton Henry connected on a 29-yard field goal with 3:08 left in the first half.
Utah came out of the halftime break and immediately drove for the equalizer on Matt Gay’s 53-yard field goal, one that barely made it over the crossbar. However, the hard-hitting game cost the Utes a player along the way—standout wide receiver Britain Covey was injured on the kickoff return after the UW’s Dominique Hampton tackled him and he watched the rest of the game on crutches.
Thereafter it was the Murphy show. He credited his defense with having the right approach in its rematch with Utah. The Huskies played a highly physical game 10 weeks earlier in Salt Lake City, one they won 21-7, and were ready for another.
“I’m happy all of the players kept their minds right,” Murphy said. “We stayed together and got it done.”
Now a season that began with national playoff hopes will end in Pasadena, an acceptable alternative for this veteran team. The Huskies, down seven starters at one point as they dropped three games by 10 points total, appear re-energized, even if the offense didn't show up in the Bay Area.
“From all the ups and downs we had this year, to come back and win the Pac-12 championship is incredible,” said UW senior defensive lineman Greg Gaines, a California native eager to enjoy the coming reward in his neighborhood. “Growing up, the Rose Bowl was like the national championship game.”