Friday is the first time in the eight-year history of the Pac-12 championship game that the league’s top two defenses will meet for the conference title.
Washington opened Pac-12 Conference play this season with a 21-7 victory at Utah on Sept. 15, a game the Huskies say was a tough as any game they played during the regular season.
“It was physical, and it was a lot of fun,” Washington senior linebacker Tevis Bartlett recalled this week. “Two tough teams just trading blows all night. I think it’s going to be a similar game on Friday. … I don’t think it’s any accident that the two toughest teams (in the Pac-12) are in the championship game.”
The rematch between the No. 10 Huskies (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) and the No. 17 Utes (9-3, 6-3) is in Friday’s Pac-12 championship at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The winner will earn a berth to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
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It’s the first time in the eight-year history of the Pac-12 championship game that the league’s top two defenses will meet for the conference title.
The Huskies, allowing 16.5 points per game, boast the Pac-12’s No. 1 scoring defense for a fourth consecutive season.
Utah has the Pac-12’s No. 1 rushing defense (100.3 yards per) and the No. 1 red-zone defense.
The game will also feature the two leading candidates for Pac-12 defensive player of the year.
UW senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, named Wednesday the Pac-12 football Scholar Athlete of the Year, leads the nation with 155 tackles, plus two interceptions, four tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
Utah senior linebacker Chase Hansen has 101 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and five sacks.
“I think always when you start with defenses, they’re going to keep things close for both sides,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “It will be an interesting matchup. Our guys will have to play their best game of the season, which is kind of how you want it late. That’s what we’ve talked about (when) you go into a championship game. …
“It just comes back to us playing the best we can possibly play. The kids will know what they’re in for, having experienced them one time and watching tape they’re going to be like, ‘OK, we’d better be at our best.’”
Utah lost its first two conference games — at home to Washington and a 28-24 setback at Washington State on Sept. 29 — but has recovered to win seven of its last eight games, including three in a row since losing starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and starting running back Zack Moss in the same week.
“Our backs were against the wall after those first two games, and our guys have been fighting that fight for several months now,” said Kyle Whittingham, in his 14th season as Utah’s coach. “Just going back to the toughness and the mindset of this team — this might be my most enjoyable year coaching.”
The Huskies, the preseason favorite to win the conference title, lost two league games in October while star running back Myles Gaskin dealt with a shoulder injury. The Huskies had to win their three November games, and did so to get back to the conference championship game.
“Everybody wants every year to go 11-0 and ride into the sunset and the playoffs and all that. This team has been tested time and time and time again,” UW offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan said. “I think in these walls, dealing with it every day, you almost have to get away sometimes to take the next step. You can’t beat yourself up about it. But these guys have gone back to work every single day, one day at a time, eliminated the noise, and that has been what has put them in position to go for a Pac-12 championship.”
For the Huskies, it’s a return to the site of their 2016 Pac-12 championship, a 41-10 victory over Colorado that cemented UW’s College Football Playoff resume. With three losses, the Huskies aren’t in the playoff picture now, but the program is playing for its first Rose Bowl berth since the 2000 season.
“It’s just one of those games you grow up watching,” Bartlett said. “My birthday is January 1, so we would get up and have cake and watch the Rose Bowl. Putting it on a day like that shows you how different it is and how awesome of a game it is. I think it would be an awesome opportunity, but we’ve got to worry about this game first.”