There have been times this year when it seemed as though attempting a season wasn’t worth the trouble. Week after week, there is a COVID-related cancellation that keeps the Pac-12 in a perpetual state of uncertainty.
It has been a scheduling circus filled with frustration, anxiety and disappointment. But Saturday served as a reminder as to why it’s worth the hassle.
The Huskies’ 24-21 win over Utah epitomized the joy of college football. It was a delectable blend of suspense, inspiration and emotion.
It was also something that, a couple of months ago, seemed like an impossibility due to coronavirus concerns. So take a moment to appreciate a gift that almost never was.
“We’ll be talking about this game years from now,” said Washington coach Jimmy Lake, whose team came back from a 21-point halftime deficit to improve to 3-0. “Unreal.”
Saturday’s victory remedied any deflation Huskies fans may have felt due to the cancellation of the Apple Cup. After Washington State wasn’t able to field a team this week due to players in COVID-19 protocol, UW managed to schedule a home game versus the Utes, whose game against Arizona State was nixed for the same reason.
For the first 30 minutes, though, it appeared that this last-minute matchup would be a regrettable one for Washington. Then came the program’s largest second-half comeback since 1988.
Comparing UW’s play in the first half to the second half is like comparing a doodle to a piece hanging in the Louvre. Those first two quarters featured two interceptions by Huskies quarterback Dylan Morris, a nonexistent UW running game, and three touchdowns from a Utah team that racked up more than 200 first-half yards. A week after scoring the game’s first 37 points in a 44-27 win over Arizona, it appeared as though Washington was as underprepared as it was overconfident.
However, according to Lake and various players, there was no negativity in the Washington locker room. Anger? Sure. Concern? Hell yes. But the vibe was never about bowing out so much as it was about bouncing back.
“My message was ‘don’t be soft’,” UW cornerback Elijah Molden said. “It’s easy when things don’t go your way to kind of hang your head and feel sorry for yourself. I think we were fighting that.”
So the Huskies fought the pessimism then fought their way back into the game. They scored three minutes into the second half on a six-play, 72-yard drive that included a clutch third-down completion from Morris to tight end Cade Otton.
On Utah’s opening drive of the third quarter, Molden intercepted quarterback Jake Bentley, which led to a Huskies field goal. Washington forced a turnover on downs on the following Utes drive, scored on a 21-yard TD pass from Morris to Otton three plays later, and by the end of the third quarter, was down 21-17.
The momentum wasn’t stolen from Utah (0-2) so much as it was kidnapped. The Huskies recovered a fumble on the Utes’ next series after Kyler Gordon knocked the ball out of running back Ty Jordan’s hands. It didn’t lead to a score, but was reflective of a defense that had declared ownership of its opponent.
Two Utah drives later, Huskies linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui recorded consecutive sacks on second and third down that forced a Utah punt. The Huskies took over on their own 12, and 12 plays and four minutes later, Morris hit Otton for the go-ahead TD with 36 seconds left in the game.
The comeback personified poise and patience in a way we haven’t seen from the Huskies in years. As Tupuola-Fetui said after: “There was never a flinch in confidence.”
Lake said afterward that he would have loved to have had 72,000 fans in the stands screaming. That’s not going to happen this year.
In the meantime, though, those same fans should be grateful they were able to wear out their larynxes from their homes. There was almost never a season for the Pac-12, but games like Saturday remind us how lucky we are to have one.