Utah’s football game Saturday afternoon in Seattle may become a reward for alumni Christian Drews, Chase Dominguez and Mitch Wishnowsky, who believe they were illegally blocked during Washington’s punt return for a go-ahead touchdown in 2016.
It might be redeeming for Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, whose timeout enabled the Huskies to drive for the winning field goal in 2017.
A victory would make Ute defensive lineman Pita Tonga and former tight end Connor Haller feel better about the would-be touchdowns they failed to complete last season. Same story with Sioasi Mariner, now playing for Utah State, whose misplayed pass resulted in an interception the Huskies returned for the only touchdown in last November’s Pac-12 championship game.
And this is the chance that Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss have wanted, after they missed the conference title game with injuries.
Thanks to four victories in three seasons, the Huskies represent a major hurdle for Whittingham and his players, who have lived through those bitter losses. No. 9 Utah’s seniors, probably the most talented class in school history, have beaten every Pac-12 school except Washington.
“This is the reason why we came back,” said safety Julian Blackmon, one of four players who considered entering the 2019 NFL draft.
They've already avenged last season's losses to Washington State and Arizona State, and here comes a two-for-one opportunity: By beating Washington, the Utes can make up for last year's two defeats. And if No. 7 Oregon also wins at USC later Saturday, Utah will control the Pac-12 South race.
Last November’s championship game remains the biggest contest in Utah’s Pac-12 history, because the winner was guaranteed a Rose Bowl berth. More variables would remain this year, even if the Utes win in Seattle. But it is fair to say their season could crumble, if everything goes against them Saturday.
Never mind that Washington has lost three conference games this season, to California, Stanford and Oregon (by a total of 15 points). If the Utes win a fifth consecutive Pac-12 game, something they've never done, they will have earned it. Beating the Huskies will require the best work of Huntley and Moss offensively and more of Utah's excellence defensively against a proven quarterback, Georgia transfer Jacob Eason.
For the first time in three games, as defensive tackle Leki Fotu observed, the Utes will face a QB “who wasn't in high school last year.”
Utah tormented true freshmen Jayden Daniels of Arizona State and Spencer Brasch of California, allowing a total of three points. The Ute defense has played at a historic level, ever since a 30-23 loss at USC in September. The Huskies will create some different challenges, with dynamic tight end Hunter Bryant and Orem’s Puka Nacua among Eason’s top targets. Eason passed for 289 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-31 loss to Oregon.
The Huskies are sure to produce points Saturday, meaning Utah's offense will have to respond. The Utes' 28-0 halftime lead over Cal enabled the coaches to rest Huntley, who had a leg injury. “I love football,” Huntley said, explaining his insistence on playing.
“Very impressed with his passion for the game, his work ethic; his toughness is unquestionable,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. “He's as tough a quarterback and as tough a football player as I've been around.”
Huntley, one of 10 quarterbacking finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, is targeting a 20th victory as Utah’s starting quarterback for most of three seasons. A win at Washington might be the biggest of his career. Huntley almost pulled off an upset of the No. 16 Huskies in Seattle as a sophomore, but Washington scored 10 points in the last minute of a 33-30 victory.
Huntley lacks the volume of attempts of the country's top quarterbacks, but his efficiency numbers place in him an elite class. Ludwig coached Brian Johnson, Utah's all-time winningest quarterback, and Fresno State's David Carr, the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NFL draft. Yet Huntley's “combination of arm talent, accuracy and athleticism” distinguishes him, Ludwig said. “ I hope he continues to exceed my expectations.”
Beating the Huskies would add to his credentials, positioning Huntley and his teammates for even bigger things.
UTAH AT WASHINGTON
At Husky Stadium, Seattle
Kickoff: Saturday, 2 p.m. MDT.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 7-1 (4-1 Pac-12); Washington 5-3 (2-3).
Series history: Washington leads, 12-1.
Last meeting: Washington 10, Utah 3 (2018).
About the Utes: Utah has allowed only 32 points in second halves, including USC’s 16 (counting a safety). … The Utes have held their last four opponents to 23 total points, all in Pac-12 games. Utah had a similar stretch in 1981 against four teams, including a lower-level opponent. … The Utes are No. 1 nationally in rushing defense, allowing 56.4 yards, and are No. 3 in total defense (231.0 yards) and No. 4 in scoring defense (10.3 points). … Utah’s second open date of the season is next weekend.
About the Huskies: Coach Chris Petersen is 52-24 in his fifth season at Washington, after going 92-12 in nine seasons at Boise State. He’s 5-0 with the Huskies coming off a bye week and hasn’t lost consecutive games since the 2015 season. … Washington is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in only one statistical category, net punting (42.71 yards). … Defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe formerly worked at Utah State. … Utah’s first visit to Seattle was a 7-6 loss in 1931.