The artistry of Jacob Eason can be a wondrous sight to behold. It is why NFL scouts are flooding to Washington games. It is why the Huskies never feel they are out of any game. It is why Eason will probably be playing on Sundays next year.
And there it was, in full display, Saturday at Husky Stadium. The Husky quarterback was a marvel at the outset of the game. By the time he had thrown his second touchdown pass early in the second quarter, a marvelous in-stride strike of 34 yards to tight end Hunter Bryant that gave the Huskies a 14-3 lead, it looked like it could be one of those special days. For him, and for a team that desperately needed some wizardry.
But if Saturday started out as a showcase for the best of Eason, who completed 10 of his first 12 passes, it transformed, unexpectedly and abruptly, into one of his roughest days. And the Huskies, who had little margin for error against a team the caliber of Utah, once again retreated in the second half en route to a 33-28 loss.
This loss, a devastating one in the big-picture ambitions of the Huskies, who are now a jarring 5-4, is certainly not squarely on Eason’s shoulders.
As coach Chris Petersen said, running down a litany of some of Washington’s second-half miscues: “Just self-inflicted wounds. I don’t know what to tell you. Day-one stuff. … It’s not going to be about just toughness and being physical — you’ve got to execute as well.”
But Eason’s mistakes — three turnovers leading directly to nine Utah points, including a devastating pick-six — were particularly glaring, and particularly damaging.
In the end, the Huskies simply couldn’t overcome them in a game that eliminated their chance for a 10-win season and knocked them further down the bowl hierarchy.
Coming into the game, Eason had a sterling touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16 to 3 through eight games. He added four touchdown passes to that total Saturday while throwing 52 passes, a total that Petersen admitted was far from ideal.
But such was the revamped game-plan-by-desperation that resulted as Utah shot by the Huskies in the fourth quarter, a reprise of the scenario in their recent loss against Oregon. Those two games were the Huskies’ last-ditch chance to show that they could still reach elevated heights of national relevance this season, but now they are struggling to stay above .500.
As for Eason, he had a fumble in the first quarter and an interception thrown ill-advisedly into traffic in the third quarter. Later in the third, he authored another interception that was returned 39 yards for a score by Utah’s Jaylon Johnson.
Every turnover has its own story, of course — and it is significant that even after the pick-six, the Huskies still were clinging to a 21-19 lead. At that point, the inability of the Husky defense to get off the field on key third- and fourth-down plays sealed their demise.
But a downcast Eason was hit with questions about why the Huskies, for the second week in a row, couldn’t hold onto a fourth-quarter lead against a top 10-ranked opponent.
“I don’t know what the problem is right now,’’ he said. “We’ve got to fix it. Part of that is on me, being smart with the ball in those situations. I’ll take the blame there and move on, get better from it.”
The fumble came deep in Husky territory and gifted the Utes with the ball just 15 yards from the end zone. They only advanced it 2 yards, and settled for a field goal. Eason had already hit Jordan Chin with a touchdown pass, and the Husky defense was playing inspired ball, so it seemed no-harm, no foul.
But the turnovers got progressively more damaging. The next one came on the Huskies’ first possession of the second half. They were marching crisply down the field, trying to reaffirm their control of the game. Having reached the Utah 23, Eason threw a pass intended for tight end Cade Otton, who was surrounded by three Utes. One of them, Julian Blackmon, snared the ball.
The Husky defense held, and Eason came back with another TD pass to Bryant, this one covering 40 yards, extending Washington’s lead to 21-13. The Huskies then recovered back-to-back Utah fumbles, a golden chance to re-claim this game.
But they went three-and-out the first time (a drive marred by two false starts), then Utah’s Johnson jumped an Eason pass (following an intentional-grounding penalty) and returned it 39 yards for a game-changing score.
“I just watched film all week, more than I have for any other game,’’ Johnson said. “Just coming into it, I knew the way they align and Eason tendencies throwing the out route, so I just took a chance on it and made the play. It was a huge momentum changer. I mean, this is a big game and it was a big play of the game. There was no way I was letting that ball out of my hands.
Here’s how Eason saw it: “They brought pressure on the edge, and I made a bad decision and threw the ball. Their corner is really good and made a good play.”
Eason made many good plays in the game, finishing with 316 passing yards, but those three in particular will linger with him. To most questions, he had a rote answer: “We’ll learn from it and get better next week.”
The problem for the Huskies is that each successive “next week” is bringing diminishing returns. Time is running out to fix the legion of mistakes that Bryant rattled off as undermining Washington’s offensive efficiency — penalties, dropped balls, missed blocks, missed assignments.
“It’s really just little things that will hurt us a lot in the long run,’’ he said. ‘I think if we can get those details figured out, we’re a hell of a team.”