The siren sounded.
And for a second, it seemed like the Huskies would follow a familiar formula to another improbable win.
Same as a week ago, Washington trailed by three touchdowns at halftime on Saturday. And same as a week ago, the Huskies somehow managed to storm back in the second half.
They used three consecutive touchdown drives to whittle a seemingly insurmountable deficit from 24-3 at halftime to 31-23 with 11:03 left in the fourth quarter of an eventual 31-26 loss. And then, before Stanford (2-2) could cross midfield, cornerback Trent McDuffie sprinted around the edge to strip Cardinal running back Austin Jones at the 49-yard line. Same as a week ago, a UW defender — this time Edefuan Ulofoshio, not Zion Tupuola-Fetui — scooped up the bouncing ball and brought it back, before being forced out of bounds at the Stanford 10-yard line.
On the next play, UW quarterback Dylan Morris faked a handoff, set his feet and delivered a dagger to wide-open wide receiver Ty Jones in the corner of the end zone. The siren sounded. The Huskies celebrated. The mirage teased and faded.
The referee threw a flag.
“It was a great call by (UW offensive coordinator John) Donovan,” coach Jimmy Lake said. “We got what we wanted … and we had a holding call.”
Instead of scoring the touchdown that could have potentially tied the score, left guard Ulumoo “M.J.” Ale was called for a 10-yard holding penalty. Following a one-yard Sean McGrew run, left tackle Jaxson Kirkland was subsequently flagged for a second hold. Suddenly, the Huskies faced third-and-goal from the Stanford 29-yard line. Morris managed an essentially meaningless 2-yard scramble, and kicker Peyton Henry connected on a 45-yard field goal to shrink the Stanford advantage to 31-26.
But the missed opportunity hung like purple smoke inside the stadium.
“I thought it was a touchdown initially,” Jones said of the touchdown that wasn’t. “Then I looked back and I saw the flag. M.J. unfortunately got called. But shoot, we’ve got to do a better job of flushing it and getting our next play done. Because we still had a few plays that drive to execute and I think we let that linger a little bit.”
It lingered, and lingered, until Lake finally lost. The Cardinal closed the game with a soul-stomping 14-play, 79-yard, seven-minute, 47-second drive, before taking a knee at the Husky 12-yard line. They converted on third-and-10 and third-and-11 along the way.
And this, really, was an all-too-appropriate ending. Stanford, after all, went 10 of 13 on third down in the game and 6 of 7 in the first half. The Cardinal converted both of their fourth-down attempts as well. They rushed for 191 yards, 4.8 yards per carry and three touchdowns — while not allowing a single sack.
They simultaneously controlled the ball, the clock and the game.
“That’s really the heart of the issue,” Lake said of his team’s continued inability to stop the run. “The last two games, both opponents (Stanford and Utah) have been able to run the football, move the chains. Just like what we want to do on offense, be able to force our will and run the football, our last two opponents have been able to do that against us — which takes a lot of wind out of your sails.”
To be fair, it didn’t look like Washington had much wind to begin with. A week after it gained 300 total yards and scored 24 points in four quarters against Cal, Stanford amassed 270 total yards and 24 points in the first two quarters on Saturday. The Cardinal scored in each of its four first-half drives — rushing for 121 yards, 5.8 yards per carry and three touchdowns in the process.
That’s the same Stanford squad, by the way, that entered the game ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense with 120.67 yards per game.
A week after it trailed Utah 21-0 at halftime of an eventual 24-21 win, Washington took an eerily similar 24-3 deficit into the locker room on Senior Day on Saturday.
And, believe it or not, historic second-half comebacks are not a sustainable strategy.
“We’ve got to do a better job just starting fast,” said redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Ulofoshio, who led the Huskies with 18 tackles and the 39-yard fumble return. “We can’t be down 21-0 (or 24-3) and expect to be cardiac kids and be miracle workers. That’s not football. As a defense we’ve got to be consistent, and we didn’t do that today.”
But the offense did start to have some consistent success — thanks, in large part, to Ty Jones, who hauled in 42- and 37-yard third-quarter receptions. The first of those featured a 6-foot-4, 200-pound Jones sticking out his right hand and snaring the football out of the air at the Stanford 6-yard line.
Morris, too, made another positive impression — completing 15 of 23 passes for 254 yards without a turnover, while rushing for 36 tough yards and a touchdown. In what could be his final game inside Husky Stadium, McGrew also led UW with 65 rushing yards and a pair of scores.
But, against a Stanford offense that didn’t punt until 23 seconds remained in the third quarter, it wasn’t ultimately enough.
“It feels like a missed opportunity, to be honest with you,” Ulofoshio said. “Because I know the defense that we can be and we showed it in the second half. But it doesn’t really matter if you give up 24 in the first and put your offense in a hole, always trying to play catch-up.”
Added Jones, who finished with two catches for 79 yards: “Sometimes it feels like there’s a lack of energy coming out (of the gates). We need to come out hot. There’s too many self-inflicted negatives and flags.
“It’s tough when we got guys coming out (of the lineup) due to coronavirus. We got guys getting hurt. It’s just … things are kind of weird. But shoot, that’s no excuse. We just need to get our energy up and execute from the first snap.”
As Jones alluded to, several UW contributors — including wide receivers Puka Nacua and Terrell Bynum and outside linebacker Ryan Bowman — were unavailable on Saturday for unspecified reasons. Bynum, at least, watched the game from the sideline. Bowman was not present for the second consecutive Saturday.
But the Huskies aren’t here to make excuses — especially considering their opponent, Stanford, spent the week sleeping at a hotel and practicing at a high school, after Santa Clara County issued a temporary ban on organized sports.
No. 23 Washington (3-1, No. 22 CFP rankings) had multiple opportunities to follow the formula.
Instead, it wasn’t a second consecutive comeback.
It was just a siren song.