On Saturday, on an unseasonably warm day at Rice-Eccles Stadum, the Huskies got their test from a rugged Utah team. And UW coach Chris Petersen was delighted with how Washington handled it.
SALT LAKE CITY — The 2016 Huskies have assembled fancy statistics, piled up accolades, hoarded victories. It had been pretty much a non-stop joyride.
But one element – call it tension, or pressure, or stress — has been in short supply. And in a perverse way, its absence made coach Chris Petersen nervous, even as the Washington bandwagon filled up.
The Huskies, he felt, haven’t been tested enough in close, hard-fought games – just their overtime victory at Arizona, an island of strain in an ocean of cakewalks. But Petersen knows that if the Huskies are to get where they want, those romps are going to turn out to be the aberration, not the rule.
The last time the Huskies started a season 8-0. They lost in Week 9 at Arizona, 16-3, but ended playing Michigan in the Rose Bowl, losing that game as well, 38-31.
On Saturday, on an unseasonably warm day at Rice-Eccles Stadum, the Huskies got their test from a rugged Utah team. And Petersen was delighted with how Washington handled it, a trio of crippling personal fouls against the UW defense not withstanding in a scintillating 31-24 victory.
“This to me is the real football,’’ he said. “Real Pac-12 football.”
Petersen scoffed at the notion that the Huskies faced “adversity” in the game, such as when Utah took a 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter, just UW’s second deficit of the season.
Having to fight from behind, having to deal with Joe Williams, Utah’s battering ram of a running back, having to counteract an effective pass rush and a relentless team – that’s not adversity, in his mind. That’s real football, perhaps in too short supply while they were winning all but the Arizona game by an average of 38 points.
“The guys probably think it was adversity, but I don’t really want our guys to think of it as adversity,’’ he said. “I think this is just Pac-12 football, playing good teams. That’s how they’re going to go. You just have to answer back and forth.”
The Huskies answered Utah’s go-ahead touchdown immediately with a 75-yard scoring drive, much of it on the strength of Myles Gaskin’s vintage whirling-dervish act.
When Utah came back to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Huskies answered, dramatically and definitively, on Dante Pettis’ 58-yard punt return, a play that Keishawn Bierria said left him “in awe.”
And when Utah got into Washington territory in a last-ditch effort to tie or go ahead, the ultimate tension-producer, the Huskies’ defense slammed the door. The result was jubilation on the sideline, segueing into rousing cheers and singing wafting from the locker room.
“Nobody flinched,” Bierria said.
“There was no panic,’’ said Pettis.
When the Huskies fell behind for the first time since the first half of the Arizona game, Petersen didn’t gather them for any rousing pep talks. He didn’t have to, Pettis said.
“He kind of preaches the same thing every time,’’ he said. “Everyone knew, this is it. We’re prepared for this moment; let’s go out and shine.”
At halftime, Petersen noted, the team was angry, despite its 14-10 lead. The momentum had switched dramatically on a Jake Browning interception after Washington had scored two early touchdowns. Utah scored the final 10 points of the half, including a touchdown after a drive was extended by a taunting penalty against linebacker Azeem Victor.
“They kind of had that look in their eye,’’ Petersen said of the Huskies’ halftime demeanor. “I wanted to make sure it was the right look. This is how it goes. You have to grind it out in the fourth quarter.
“Having games with huge leads in the first half, we’ve been fortunate, but I don’t think that’s how it goes from here on out. So we need to learn to be able to play, and play with poise, in tight games.”
With tough regular-season games still looming against USC and Washington State, most notably, plus a possible rematch against Utah in the Pac-12 title game, and whatever might lurk beyond that, the Huskies will be in this position again.
Petersen knows what he doesn’t want to see – the personal fouls against Victor (who had a face mask later in the game that kept another Utah drive alive) and Psalm Wooching (for roughing the passer on another seeming key third-down stop by UW; Utah turned each of those drive-prolonging fouls into touchdowns).
“I thought we’d have a little more poise than that,’’ Petersen said.
But the Huskies had poise, and production, when they needed it most. And for one of the few times this season, they definitely needed it.
When asked what pleased him most about the victory, Petersen replied, “I think the fourth quarter, how tight it was. We just kind of figured out a way. The defense stopped (Utah) when we had to, we figured out a way to score points when we had to. I think it was a physical game on both sides, and we did what we needed to do to hang in there.”
Bierria felt the game showed that the Huskies are “top competitors. We see a little adversity” – oops, there’s that word – “but regardless, we’re going to fight for four (quarters), and make sure all our brothers are in it. Everyone had the same mindset today. That’s just, keep fighting. Keep fighting.”
On Tuesday, the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season will be released, almost certain to show the fourth-ranked Huskies in position for one of the four playoff berths. But you haven’t been paying attention if you think Petersen is eagerly awaiting that news.
“I mean, I think you guys all know,’’ he said. “We’ve got a bunch of football left to play. And if they (his players) are looking at that, they’re looking at the wrong stuff.
“We went right down to the wire with Utah, and Cal next week — they just keep coming. … There’s a lot of football left.”
A lot of real football. The kind that ties your gut up in a knot.
Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you.