Utes and Tyler Huntley create big opportunities by beating Washington

(Stephen Brashear | The Associated Press) Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley celebrates with fans after after a 33-28 win over Washington on Saturday in Seattle.

Seattle • Utah’s avenue to the Rose Bowl or something even bigger became considerably wider Saturday, although a potential detour that anyone would have disregarded a month ago now looms ahead in mid-November.

UCLA? The Bruins are not a joke anymore, having won three straight Pac-12 games after an 1-5 overall start of coach Chip Kelly’s second season. UCLA is 4-2, one game behind Utah in the Pac-12 South standings. Each team is off until Nov. 16, when the Bruins visit Rice-Eccles Stadium.

That will give the Utes (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) enough opportunity to take UCLA seriously, even if ESPN’s Football Power Index is unimpressed with the Bruins’ resurgence. The FPI gives Utah an 89.2% chance of beating UCLA.

The Utes for now can the enjoy the rewards of a weekend when they displayed fourth-quarter poise and toughness in a 33-28 win at Washington. And then Oregon did Utah a major favor for the second year in a row, this time knocking USC (4-2) down in the standings with a 56-24 rout of the Trojans in Los Angeles. The Ducks’ defeat of Arizona State last November handed Utah its first South title.

Utah’s victory, largely made possible by quarterback Tyler Huntley’s 11-of-12, 184-yard passing in the second half, was meaningful. The Utes beat Washington for the first time in five meetings over four seasons. The program reached .500 (39-39) in Pac-12 regular-season games for the first time in its nine-year membership, thanks to Utah’s first five-game winning streak in the conference. The Utes positioned themselves well for the first College Football Playoff rankings, to be released Tuesday.

That development should bring New Year’s Six possibilities into Utah’s view, in multiple ways. The Utes earned those opportunities in the second half in Seattle, where they were tested like no other game since mid-September at USC. Asked if he wondered how his team would respond in that circumstance, coach Kyle Whittingham said, “I had a hunch we’d do just like we did.”

Three takeaways

• Any incompletion Huntley throws is almost surprising.

He finished 19 of 24 for 284 yards. With a 73.1% completion rate this season, Huntley is ahead of Lee Grosscup’s school-record pace of 1957 and is threatening Alex Smith’s career record.

And he's not doing it with Air Raid-style, short passes. On Utah's two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, after his team trailed 21-19, Huntley converted third downs by hitting Jaylon Dixon for 41 yards, Solomon Enis for 14 and Samson Nacua for 28.

• Utah’s defense asserted itself when needed.

After a third-quarter touchdown gave Washington a 21-13 lead, the Huskies’ drive chart went punt, interception, punt, punt — with no first downs. The Ute defense came through with big stops, including Jaylon Johnson’s interception return for a touchdown, after the offense lost two fumbles in Husky territory. The Utes couldn’t keep Washington from scoring on a 19-play drive late in the game but succeeded in reducing the Huskies’ hopes to an onside kick attempt.

Bradlee Anae recorded his eighth sack of the season on the last drive and Julian Blackmon, who recovered the onside kick, made his team-high third interception.

• This was another big checkpoint for Utah’s remarkable senior class.

After all the ways the Utes invented to lose to Washington in recent years, winning in Seattle was a breakthrough, and Whittingham and his players knew it. In a College Football Playoff context, the loss to USC may haunt the Utes more now. In the Pac-12 picture, though, they’ve atoned for that defeat.

Player of the game

Tyler Huntley. His career cried out for a signature win — and this is it, so far. Huntley delivered one of the best second-half quarterbacking jobs in Ute history, without throwing a touchdown pass (he ran for the 1-yard, go-ahead score).

Runner-up: John Penisini. The defensive tackle forced a fumble that led to Utah's first-quarter field goal and was credited with a 12-yard sack when Washington quarterback Jacob Eason was called for intentional grounding. The Utes held Washington to 53 rushing yards, maintaining their No. 1 national ranking in that category.

Play of the game

Johnson's 39-yard pick-six. The Utes were deflated after losing fumbles on consecutive possessions, before the star cornerback jumped an outside route for the interception. The play was even more timely than his 100-yard touchdown against Stanford last season.

Up next

In a year when the calendar dictates two open dates for each FBS team, the Utes are off this week. After an emotional win, Whittingham said, “The timing couldn't be better.”

Utah will have a three-game run toward the South title, hosting UCLA and Colorado and visiting Arizona in between. The Pac-12 championship game is Dec. 6 at Santa Clara, Calif.