The No. 4 Huskies survived their toughest challenge of the season in 31-24 victory over No. 17 Utah before a red-clad, sold-out crowd of 47,801 at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Immediately, Dante Pettis knew he was in trouble. He fielded the punt at the Washington 42-yard line … and ran 4 yards in the wrong direction.

That’s a big no-no for Washington coach Chris Petersen, who personally instructs the Huskies’ punt returners in practice each week.

“I knew Coach Pete would be mad if I got tackled right there,” Pettis said. “I somehow slipped out of it. The blockers did a good job of opening up space and I just ran. That was it.”

That about sums up the Huskies’ 31-24 escape at No. 17 Utah, doesn’t it?

Pettis broke two tackles, veered right toward the UW sideline and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 58-yard return with 3:25 left, and the No. 4 Huskies (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) remained undefeated in what was for them a rare nail-biter before for a rowdy, red-clad crowd of 47,801 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“It was nerve-wracking up until the very end,” UW quarterback Jake Browning said.

And it was, of all things, Browning’s pooch punt that helped set up Pettis’ punt return. The quarterback’s punt was downed at the Utah 1-yard line, and after the Utes gained just 2 yards on their next three plays, Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky had to punt it back to UW from the back of his own end zone.

With the score tied 24-24, that gave Pettis a chance at a return against a Utah special-teams unit that hadn’t allowed a punt-return TD since 2009.

“It was awesome for Dante to get that done at the end, because that punter’s a heck of a punter. He’s a weapon. We could get nothing (earlier in the game),” Petersen said.

Utah QB Troy Williams, the UW transfer, got next-to nothing in the first half of his first game against his old team. But he didn’t disappoint in the second half, throwing two touchdown passes to help the Utes erase an early 14-0 deficit.

Finally, on third down in the final minute, UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria, in a rare blitz, had the Huskies’ only sack of the game, knocking Williams back for an 8-yard loss. On the next play, Williams’ fourth-down pass sailed out of the end zone with 43 seconds left, starting UW’s celebration.

Williams had embraced many of his former teammates before the game, laughing and joking around during early warmups. Afterward, they embraced again.

“I just told him I loved him,” said Bierria, close friends with Williams since childhood.

Williams finished 14 of 31 for 163 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers.

“Nothing personal, just business,” said Williams, who all week had made known his desire to beat the Huskies. “It was a great to see them after the game and I want them to continue to win. We’ll see them again.”

Utah (7-2, 4-2) entered the weekend tied for the lead in the Pac-12 South, and there’s the potential for a rematch for the two teams in the conference championship game in December.

Browning threw his first interception in more than a month, setting the Utah offense up for its first score in the second quarter. Utah came into the game leading the nation in takeaways, and Browning said the Utes were good at mixing things up and disguising their coverages.

Browning finished 12 of 20 for 186 yards and two touchdowns, both to John Ross III. Ross’ second touchdown was one of the highlight plays of the year, as he tipped the ball up, spun away from the defender and caught it.

Myles Gaskin had his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game, finishing with 151 yards on 19 carries and one touchdown and helping strengthen UW’s case for a College Football Playoff berth.

On Tuesday, the CFP committee will release its first rankings of the season. The Huskies figure to be in the top four.

Up to this point, the route toward the playoff had been a clearly defined straight line for the Huskies. Easy, even.

Not this time. After three consecutive blowout victories, the Huskies trailed in the second half for the first time all season. That the Huskies had to rally late, to really earn this one, is something they hope benefits them down the road.

“Obviously, the blowouts are nice,” Browning said, “but when you come into a four-quarter game, a four-quarter fight, you want to be able to pull those ones out.

“That,” he added, “was big for us.”

The big five

Dante Pettis had his fifth career punt return for a touchdown, breaking a tie with Beno Bryant (1989-93) for most in school history. A look at Pettis’ five punt-return TDs.
Year Opponent Length
2016 Utah (W, 31-24) 58
2016 Rutgers (W, 48-13) 68
2015 Oregon State (W, 52-7) 89
2015 Boise State (L, 16-13) 76
2014 Colorado (W, 38-23) 87