STANFORD, Calif. — The play-call was ready. The Huskies were going vertical, and they were going for the improbable victory.

The play never happened. And the victory, just as the pass thrown to the diving receiver, ultimately came up just short.

“It’s tough, man. It’s tough,” Washington senior quarterback Keith Price said after the No. 15 Huskies lost a heartbreaker, 31-28, at No. 5 Stanford late Saturday night.

On fourth-and-10 near midfield with 1:16 left on the clock, Price eluded a sack, scrambled far to his right and fired a pass to senior receiver Kevin Smith, who dived back toward the ball along the Stanford sideline to make the catch at the Stanford 33-yard line.

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Or so the Huskies thought.

After a lengthy review, the replay official ruled Price’s pass hit the ground right underneath Smith. Incomplete pass. And, after two Stanford kneel-downs, the game was over.

“I should’ve threw a better ball,” Price said. “I thought it was complete at first; turns out, it wasn’t. If I had threw the ball a little higher …

“You have a chance to win a ballgame and who’s to say? I don’t know if he caught it or dropped it or whatever. I didn’t see the replay. But to have the game end like that, it’s no fun.”

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was more pointed.

“It’s unfortunate the game had to come down to a judgment call like that,” he said. “I wish the game was won on the field and not in the booth upstairs with some guy (who) didn’t get to feel the emotion of the hard-fought football game that that game was. … From my vantage point, it was pretty hard to overturn it. But, again, I didn’t get to sit 50 yards up in a booth and play a video game and make the call.”

Stanford (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) led 31-21 until Price found Jaydon Mickens for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 2:38 remaining. UW cornerback Marcus Peters, who intercepted Stanford’s Kevin Hogan in the first half, brought down Hogan on third-and-1 at the Stanford 29 with just a little more than two minutes left, forcing a Stanford punt.

After driving to the Stanford 49, Price just missed Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the middle of the field on third-and-10. The ball glanced off the tight end’s finger tips. Then, after the fateful fourth-down play, Price and the Huskies (4-1, 1-1) hurried to the line, hoping to get off the snap before a replay could be called. They were prepared to run a play in which all their receivers ran deep, as they had run the play before.

They weren’t fast enough. And, on this night, they weren’t quite good enough to overcome costly miscues on special teams and 10 more penalties.

Stanford’s Ty Montgomery returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, then returned another 72 yards to set up a third-quarter touchdown for Stanford.

“We were killing ourselves,” Price said.

With Washington driving midway through the fourth quarter, Stanford’s standout outside linebacker, Trent Murphy, tipped a Price pass inside the Stanford 10-yard line. Linebacker A.J. Tarpley brought down the interception, a late turnover reminiscent of the late errors that were so costly for UW late in 2012.

“I thought our kids exuded enormous hearts,” Sarkisian said. “I thought they showed the fight that is innate in this program. It is not superficial.”

Price was sacked five times after UW had allowed just three sacks in four games entering Saturday. Price finished 33 of 48 for 350 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Bishop Sankey had 125 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries for the Huskies.

Down 10-0 early in the second quarter, the Huskies closed to three points three different times, only to see Stanford answer each time with a touchdown drive of its own to keep UW at arm’s length.

Sankey bounced in for a 15-yard touchdown to bring the Huskies to 24-21 with 3:21 left in the third quarter. The drive was aided by Travis Coons’ 19-yard run on a fake punt, and a late-hit penalty on Stanford.

But after a second pooch kickoff by UW, Montgomery nearly returned another kick for a touchdown. He was caught from behind by Marcus Peters, but not before a 72-yard return to the UW 19.

Three plays later, with eight offensive linemen blocking in Stanford’s “elephant” package, Tyler Gaffney scored from 11 yards out to push the Cardinal lead to 31-21 with 44 seconds left in the third quarter.

Earlier in the third quarter, Hogan had followed nine offensive linemen on a 4-yard touchdown run to give the Cardinal a 24-14 lead.

Sankey, the nation’s rushing leader, had his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season.

The Cardinal jumped out to a 10-0 lead before Price and the UW offense finally got rolling late in the second quarter. Sankey dived in to the end zone with 1:03 left in the half to cut UW’s deficit to 10-7.

A pooch kick on UW’s ensuing kickoff set Stanford up in good field position, at its own 39. Five plays later, Hogan hit Montgomery in stride for a 39-yard touchdown on the right sideline with 11 seconds left in the half.

That gave Stanford a 17-7 lead at halftime.

The Huskies, who entered the weekend as the most-penalized team in college football, were flagged for eight penalties in the first half alone.

UW got the ball to start the third quarter and marched 75 yards in four plays, with Sankey running for a 29-yard gain and a scrambling Price finding Smith on the next play for a 29-yard touchdown, cutting the UW deficit to 17-14.

The Huskies’ 4-0 start was their best since 2001. They haven’t started 5-0 since 1992.

UW plays its second consecutive top-five team with No. 2 Oregon (5-0) coming to Husky Stadium on Saturday for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or ajude@seattletimes.com.