Of all things, it was in hindsight a left-footed punt by quarterback Jake Browning that turned the tide for Washington in its budding rivalry with Utah.
With 5 minutes remaining in the game, and the score tied 24-24 in Salt Lake City two years ago, Browning’s pooch punt was downed at the Utes’ 1-yard line. The Huskies’ defense then held Utah to just 2 total yards on the next three plays, forcing Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky to punt it back to the Huskies from the back of the end zone.
The guy he was punting to would eventually go on to become the most accomplished punt returner in NCAA history, and Dante Pettis has often pointed to his 58-yard touchdown return against the Utes on Oct. 29, 2016 as the best return in his UW career.
Pettis’ touchdown lifted the No. 4 Huskies to a 31-24 victory over No. 17 Utah, and many in Utah are still smarting that a block-in-the-back penalty, or two, wasn’t called against the Huskies on his return.
Browning and the No. 10 Huskies (1-1) return to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN) looking for their third consecutive victory over the Utes (2-0). It won’t be easy. Utah has played the Huskies tougher than anyone in the Pac-12 the past three seasons — holding off the UW’s late comeback bid in 2015 before falling late the past two seasons.
Those taut finishes have engendered a mutual respect between the two programs.
“I think Utah, if you had to pick a team, is probably the most similar to us. That’s really the biggest thing,” UW senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said. “The way (Kyle) Whittingham coaches them, they focus on special teams; they’re all about defense; and they want to run the ball. So you see a lot of similarities with us and I think that’s why the games have been so tight.
“They play football the right way.”
Washington and Utah last year ranked first and third, respectively, in scoring defense in the Pac-12, and both are among the elite defenses in the league again this season.
“It’s been competitive, but we’ve got to find a way to get over that hump,” said Whittingham, in his 14th season as the Utah coach. “They’re a heck of a football team. You look at them on tape and you don’t see any weaknesses. They’re solid at every position, well-coached and disciple and they’ve got play-makers. They’re as balanced a team as any team in the country, in my opinion. …
“Just across the board, they do things the right way.”
In 2015, Utah defeated UW, 34-23, at Husky Stadium during Browning’s true-freshman season. Playing in a steady downpour, the Huskies had five turnovers, four dropped passes by receivers and two touchdowns negated by penalties — and yet still had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, Browning took a blind-sided hit and lost a fumble, ending the Huskies’ last best hope then.
In 2016, after Pettis’ return, the UW defense made a stand against former Husky QB Troy Williams, whose fourth-down Hail Mary pass sailed out of the end zone in the final minute, keeping the Huskies undefeated in their march to the Pac-12 title that season.
“It was nerve-wracking up until the very end,” Browning said after the game.
In 2017, Browning engineered the most improbable comeback of his career. Trailing 30-23, the Huskies scored 10 points in the final 58 seconds to beat Utah, 33-30, on a 38-yard field goal by senior Tristan Vizcaino as time expired at Husky Stadium.
The Utes had taken the lead early in the fourth quarter on QB Tyler Huntley’s 5-yard TD run — a score set up earlier in the drive by a daring fake punt by Wishnowsky, who gained 19 yards on fourth-and-17.
Utah then appeared to have a victory secured when they stopped Browning short on a fourth-down run with 4:31 left. It was the most violent and most memorable hit of the quarterback’s career — he was flipped upside down and landed awkwardly on the UW sideline; initially, Browning thought he had broken his leg.
He hobbled back onto the field a couple minutes later and led two scoring drives in the final 2:03. Myles Gaskin scored on a 2-yard TD to tie the score with 58 seconds left.
After the UW defense forced a quick three-and-out, the Huskies then got the ball back at their own 28-yard line with 29 seconds left. Gaskin was stopped for a short gain on first down, prompting Whittingham to call a curious timeout with 23 seconds to go. That gave Browning time to complete back-to-back throws to Pettis (18 yards) and Andre Baccellia (31 yards), setting up Vizcaino’s game-winning kick.
Coaches and players are bracing for another tight finish Saturday night in Salt Lake City.
“I’ve been looking forward to this game for couple years now, especially when you lost to them last year in the last minute,” Utah offensive tackle Jackson Barton told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “It kind of upsets my stomach to this day, thinking about it.”