Even when one of Utah's football games against Washington ends well, something goes wrong.
The Utes have competed favorably with the Huskies each of the past three seasons, winning once and losing twice in games that got away from them in the final minutes. “It’s something that should give us confidence,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, anticipating Saturday night’s meeting with No. 10 Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
There's that angle, and then there's the haunting feeling of the way those last two games ended for Utah. With four minutes left in each contest, the Utes had the ball and either were tied or leading. And they ended up losing.
As defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said this week, “It's those clips that you want to permanently erase from the database that stick with you.”
The bad memories were created over two seasons by Washington quarterback Jake Browning’s punt, Husky receiver Dante Pettis' punt return, Browning’s pass completion on fourth and 10, Whittingham’s timeout and Tristan Vizcaino’s field goal.
The Utes' missed opportunities against Washington teams ranked No. 4 in 2016 and No. 16 in ’17 came after their 34-23 victory in Seattle in 2015. That’s when then-freshman safety Chase Hansen was lost for the season with a severe ankle injury after a teammate rolled into him on the meaningless final play of the game. Hansen was carted off the field as teammates sang the fight song with their fans.
That's just another of the “rough finishes” that Whittingham cited in the series with the Huskies.
“I've been looking forward to this game for couple years now, especially when you lost to them last year in the last minute,” said senior offensive tackle Jackson Barton. “It kind of upsets my stomach to this day, thinking about it.”
A case could be made for either of the past two meetings as being the more devastating event for Utah. The 2016 game was a chance for the Utes' biggest home-field upset in school history (judging by the opponent’s ranking) and came with a potential Rose Bowl opportunity. The Utes' visit to Husky Stadium last November could or should have become a signature win of 2017 — even if only a middle-tier bowl was available to them.
Hansen’s second-quarter interception in ’16 turned around the game, after the Utes trailed 14-0. They pulled into a 24-24 tie in the fourth quarter via Troy Williams' touchdown pass to Evan Moeai and stopped the Huskies' next drive, only to have Browning pooch-punt the ball to the Utah 1-yard line. Mitch Wishnowsky had to punt out of the end zone, and Pettis returned the low kick 58 yards for a winning touchdown. No penalty flag fell, even though one or more Huskies appeared to block Utah players from behind.
The Utes reached Washington’s 26-yard line, but were pushed back by a sack. On fourth and 15, Williams' pass sailed beyond the end zone.
Last season, behind Tyler Huntley’s 293 passing yards, Utah led 30-23 after Donavan Thompson and Filipo Mokofisi denied an airborne Browning on a fourth-and-8 scramble The Utes could have won by picking up two first downs (they got one) offensively or by making a fourth-and-10 stop defensively, but Browning hit Andre Baccellia for 14 yards in front of cornerback Jaylon Johnson to sustain a tying drive.
The Utes punted on their next possession. Washington intended to run out the clock, handing off to Myles Gaskin for 2 yards on first down. Whittingham unwittingly changed the Huskies' plans, calling a timeout with 23 seconds remaining. He said again this week that he was trying to give kicker Matt Gay a field-goal opportunity. The math didn’t work to begin with, and the strategy bit Utah when Browning completed passes of 18 and 31 yards, leading to a 38-yard field goal as time expired.
Who knows what may have happened in overtime that night, or how Utah’s having defensive stars Hansen and Marquise Blair available would have affected the outcome? The Utes just know they get a 60-minute shot at Washington this week, in another effort to “get over the hump,” Whittingham said.
“In terms of game plan, toughness, players," Hansen said, “I think we can stand toe to toe with those guys.”
And just once in his career, Hansen would like to fully celebrate a win over Washington.