The Huskies saw their already tenuous hopes of getting back into the College Football Playoff expire definitively and unambiguously in a 30-22 loss to Stanford.
STANFORD, Calif. — On a night that began with an army of angry television viewers lamenting a truck race that was airing instead of the intended football game, Washington acted like it intended to boat-race Stanford.
The Huskies marched 88 yards on 12 nearly flawless plays to score on their first possession — and then they replicated that drive at 89 yards after a responding Stanford TD. It seemed as if the Huskies were bracing to match last year’s seminal rout of the Cardinal that marked them, officially, as a team of national caliber.
Instead, the Huskies saw their already tenuous hopes of getting back into the College Football Playoff expire definitively and unambiguously in a 30-22 loss at Stanford Stadium. They went “poof” on The Farm amid a stunning stumble by the nation’s best defense, gashed repeatedly on third down by a Stanford team that the Huskies simply could not get off the field.
“How the game unfolded, they just played their game better than we played our game,’’ Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “They hold the ball, grind up time, try to limit your possessions. And they did exactly that. If you don’t tackle well, that’s a recipe for disaster. We didn’t tackle well enough.”
And so poof, also, went Washington’s vision of running the table in an effort to force the playoff committee to pay heed to the Huskies in case there was enough chaos among other contenders to create a sliver of an opening. A second loss, on top of the one at Arizona State three games ago, is the death knell of that — not that Petersen would ever concede what he refuses to acknowledge in the first place.
“We never talk about playoffs. Ever,’’ Petersen said, shortly after Stanford’s joyous locker room celebration had echoed through the walls into the Husky interview area. “So that’s not even a discussion. We just play two more games and focused on the next one.”
But poof, perhaps, went Washington’s hopes of repeating as Pac-12 champion, with its chances of nailing down the Northern Division now in dire straits and needing some of that chaos. It was a sobering dose of harsh reality all at one time for a Washington team that simply didn’t have the answers to a Stanford squad that gained confidence and momentum — not to mention lots and lots of yards — as the evening progressed.
The Huskies, meanwhile, seemed to recede. For one of the few times all year, the Husky defense proved vulnerable, allowing Stanford to convert nine of its first 13 third-down attempts. And the UW offense, so electric early, dimmed as the game went on.
“They kind of had us on our heels,’’ Petersen said. “We started off fast, and then we went stagnant for two quarters again and didn’t do much.”
Nothing changed on Stanford’s side, insisted quarterback Jake Browning.
“They pretty much ran their stuff,’’ he said. “I don’t think they did anything different than what they’ve been doing for a long time. They kind of have been doing the same defense for however many years, since before I came here. We just had a couple of misfirings, misexecutions.”
The Huskies are clearly paying a price for losing a series of playmakers on offense and secondary members on defense. Stanford’s unheralded quarterback K.J. Costello, who threw for a wobbly 105 yards in Stanford’s 24-21 loss to Washington State last week, was able to make key connection after key connection, most tellingly to 6-foot-3 junior J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who caught five passes for 130 yards.
One intriguing sidelight to this game was the battle of premier Pac-12 running backs. Bryce Love was the glamour back at Stanford Stadium, the one with a Heisman campaign and the gaudiest rushing numbers in college football.
Myles Gaskin, on the other hand, never seems to attract much attention, certainly not commensurate with his achievements. His consistent excellence, now with three years of sample size to back it up, is almost an afterthought when sizing up a Husky team marked by the leading defense in the nation.
Yet Gaskin, once again, is having a stealth standout season, and on Friday he was brilliant early, scoring both Washington first-half touchdowns, surpassing 1,000 yards for the third straight season and, eventually, 100 yards (120 total) for the 19th time in his career.
Early on, he outplayed Love, the nation’s leading rusher coming in with 182 yards per game and on track for the all-time FBS record for yards-per-carry at 8.4. At halftime, Gaskin had 88 yards and Love a mere 43. Yet by the end, it was an unrequited Love affair as Bryce finished the game with 166 yards and three touchdowns, while Gaskin coughed up a key fumble — just the second of his career — that led to a Stanford score on its way to a 30-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
By this time, Husky fans might have been wishing the truck races were back (though Pac-12 officials should have to answer for the inexcusable inability of fans to watch most of the first quarter of their supposed marquee Friday night game).
The Huskies were uncharacteristically ragged, a facemask penalty by Vita Vea prolonging one Stanford scoring drive and Browning turning ineffective after a torrid 9-for-9 start, despite (or in some cases, because of) some Russell Wilson-level scrambling. A failure to convert on fourth-and-one in the second quarter deep in Stanford territory also proved to be a crucial factor in switching momentum to the Cardinal.
Gaskin added a late touchdown, his third, to make it a one-possession game, but the Huskies didn’t have a miracle in them, though they got the ball back with a chance to tie with 2:35 to play. That drive expired, fittingly, with Browning running frantically for his life and getting thrown to the ground far short of a first down.
“Like I said after the ASU game, we’re going to find out who can rally and who’s going to turn over and die, and who’s going to come back and fight harder,’’ Browning said. “We like to say we’re a team that bounces back harder, but we’ll see. Enough talking about it, we have to be about it.”
For now, though, all those loftiest of dreams for the Huskies are poof, gone.