Led by Byron Murphy's two interceptions, including a 66-yard pick-six, UW outlasted Utah, 10-3, to earn the conference championship and a trip to Pasadena on New Year's Day for the first time since the 2000 season.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Posing for pictures on the field, confetti at his feet, Ben Burr-Kirven held the Pac-12 championship trophy in his hands and bit down on the long stem of a red rose.
The actual taste? Meh, a little underwhelming.
“Tastes like plants,” he said.
The feeling? As good as advertised.
“The actual Rose Bowl is going to be pretty sweet,” the Huskies’ senior linebacker said after a 10-3 victory over No. 17 Utah in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night at Levi’s Stadium. “We’re excited to go back down to Pasadena. It’s where this program belongs.”
In a defensive slog of a game, Byron Murphy returned an interception 66 yards to score the only touchdown late in the third quarter, lifting the No. 10 Huskies (10-3) to their second Pac-12 championship in three seasons and sending Washington to its first Rose Bowl berth in 18 years.
Murphy, the Huskies’ third-year sophomore cornerback, added a second interception off Utah’s Jason Shelley in the fourth quarter and — on a controversial no-call — batted down a fourth-down pass in the final minute to secure the victory.
Senior cornerback Jordan Miller also intercepted Shelley in the fourth quarter, and in a battle of the Pac-12’s top two defenses the Huskies left no doubt that they — once again — boast the league’s best defensive unit.
How good was Washington’s defense? The Utes didn’t move the ball into UW territory until the final minute of the first half and the farthest they drove — for the entire game — was the UW 36-yard line.
“That is what championship defense looks like,” UW right tackle Kaleb McGary said, “and I’m damn glad they’re on my side.”
The Huskies shut out the Utes (9-4) in the first half, extending their scoreless streak against them to a full five quarters dating back to UW’s 21-7 victory in Salt Lake City on Sept. 15.
Myles Gaskin, Jake Browning and UW’s offense didn’t fare much better against a Utah defense that came into the game as the Pac-12’s stingiest against the run.
But give them credit for this: They held the ball for 38 minutes, 32 seconds, which included a methodical 10-minute drive in the fourth quarter.
“We’re going to enjoy this one and get ready for the Rose Bowl,” said Browning, UW’s senior quarterback. “It was a pretty special game and a pretty special team to bounce back from what we went through and end our season on top of the Pac-12.”
A 29-yard field goal from redshirt freshman walk-on kicker Peyton Henry gave the Huskies a 3-0 lead late in the second quarter. He had a second field-goal attempt, from 38 yards, blocked in the fourth quarter at the end of UW’s 17-play, 10-minute drive.
The Utes tied the score on their first possession of the third quarter, when they drove to UW’s 36 and Matt Gay kicked a 53-yard field goal that just sailed over the cross bar with 11:17 left.
On Utah’s next drive, Shelley found an open receiver, Siaosi Mariner, near the right sideline. But as Mariner dived toward the sideline, the ball deflected off his hands and then bounced off the side of his right leg — and right to Murphy, who grabbed it out of the air and ran untouched the other way.
It was the first touchdown of Murphy’s career and the first non-offensive touchdown the Huskies have scored this season.
“It’s one of those plays that, ‘How does that happen?’” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
It was reminiscent of Mason Foster’s immaculate interception against Arizona at Husky Stadium in 2009, another improbable, game-winning pick-six.
“As soon as the ball came in, I knew I had to get my hands on it and get the pick-six,” said Murphy, named the game’s most valuable player.
Two years ago, in the Huskies’ 41-10 title-game victory over Colorado on the same field, it was safety Taylor Rapp who had two interceptions, including a third-quarter pick-six. On Friday, Rapp had a key sack on the final play of the first half and delivered a big hit to break up a pass in the third quarter.
On Utah’s final snap, Murphy delivered one final hit on Mariner, breaking up a pass across the middle on fourth-and-12 with 27 seconds left. Replays showed Murphy might have hit the receiver before the ball arrived, and the first question asked to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham in his postgame news conference was about that last play.
“Wouldn’t you be (fired up)? Did you see the same thing I saw?” Whittingham said. “I don’t know how I can say anything without getting fined, but I’m used to it.”
The Huskies are scheduled to play the winner of Saturday’s Big Ten championship game between Ohio State and Northwestern, though there is a chance Ohio State could still sneak into the College Football Playoff.
“This has been the hardest season we’ve had,” McGary said. “We haven’t had a single easy game. We’ve had to grind every one out. Every single game just battling our (rear ends) off, man. It has been a grinding, tough, hard, long year.”
Ending with a Rose Bowl berth?
“This,” McGary said, “is amazing. This is absolutely amazing.”