This was a comprehensive collapse.
With 8:15 remaining in the third quarter Saturday, Washington (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) led No. 9 Utah, 21-13. UW quarterback Jacob Eason had just hit junior tight end Hunter Bryant on a shallow crossing route, and the 6-foot-2, 239-pound mass of fast-twitch muscles streaked down the sideline, hurdled a would-be tackler and swiveled into the end zone for a 40-yard score.
To that point, UW looked like the better team. Eason was accurate and efficient, having thrown for three touchdowns (along with a lost fumble and an interception). The Husky defense had sacked Tyler Huntley four times and minimized the impact of senior running back Zack Moss. The Huskies were a little more than 23 minutes away from an impressive, potentially momentum-swinging Pac-12 win.
But if you’d seen the Oregon game, then you could’ve guessed what happened next.
Granted, there wasn’t a single identifiable blow that waylaid Washington. Rather, it was an avalanche made up of a million single snowflakes. The Huskies were outscored 20-7 in the final quarter-and-a-half, dropping their third game at home this season, 33-28.
“I think it just comes down to the little parts of the game. The little parts make the big parts,” said junior nickelback Elijah Molden, who finished second on the team with seven tackles and a tackle for loss. “So we’ll have a couple good plays, and then when it comes down to third down we don’t execute. So yeah, we’ve got to improve with that.”
So let’s count all the little parts — the million single snowflakes. It starts, of course, with Eason. The 6-6, 227-pound junior — who threw just three interceptions in his first eight games — surrendered two of them in the third quarter. The first emphatically ended Washington’s opening drive of the second half, as Eason lofted a pass for tight end Cade Otton into triple coverage and found Utah safety Julian Blackmon instead. The 52-yard drive died at Utah’s 8-yard line; in a game where every point matters, the Huskies came up empty.
And as for the second pick? Well, that did result in points. One play after the UW defense forced a fumble, Eason took a snap and tried to force a pass outside to Aaron Fuller on the far sideline. Instead, cornerback Jaylon Johnson jumped the route, intercepted the pass and streaked into the end zone for a 39-yard pick-six. The Utes’ ensuing two-point attempt failed, but the damage had been done.
On the whole, Eason completed 29 of 52 passes for 316 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. But his interception and first-quarter lost fumble led directly to nine Utah points.
“When you turn it over three times and (they) get nine points off those turnovers, you’ve got a very small chance of beating a team like this,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “We knew that.”
So, sure: turnovers accounted for several snowflakes. But that’s not the entire issue.
Washington’s offense was also wildly inefficient down the stretch. After Bryant’s 40-yard score, UW’s next four drives looked like this: three-and-out, pick-six, three-and-out, three-and-out. The Huskies ran 11 plays and gained -1 yard. They committed two false-start penalties and one intentional-grounding penalty. They were sacked twice, after keeping Eason upright in the first half. They imploded in an impressive variety of ways.
“It’s not going to be about just toughness and (being) physical and all that,” Petersen said of the second-half struggles. “You’ve got to execute as well. You drop a couple passes. Penalties. That’s all on us. That all comes back to coaching.”
Play-calling does, too. In the second half, UW threw a whopping 35 passes, while running just eight times in a tight game behind a veteran offensive line.
“It was going to be loaded boxes and we felt we took some chances in the second half,” said second-year offensive coordinator and play-caller Bush Hamdan. “We just didn’t hit on them. I think in the first half we did, and that’s the difference against a really, really good defense.”
Added Petersen: “That’s too many, for sure. We’ve got to be able to run the ball. That’s a good run defense, but that wasn’t the plan — to throw it that many times. But you get behind. Sometimes those stats get inflated and you’re throwing to catch up.”
The Huskies didn’t catch up — and their defense didn’t help. Utah piled up consecutive touchdown drives in the second half, gaining 166 yards on 20 plays. The Utes converted five consecutive third downs during that stretch. On third-and-12, trailing 21-19, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley hung in the pocket and delivered a precise pass to wide receiver Jaylen Dixon for a 41-yard gain.
“That was not good coverage by us, and it was a good catch and throw by Huntley and (Dixon),” said UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “Without me obviously watching the tape, I know this: we need to be in a lot tighter coverage there. We should be able to make that play. It all comes back to coaching first. We need to make sure we coach them up better, get them in better position. But we should be there to make that play.”
Despite forcing two third-quarter fumbles, UW’s defense didn’t make enough plays down the stretch. After sacking Huntley four times in the first half, Washington’s pass rush wilted in the second. Huntley completed 11 of 12 passes for 184 yards in the second half alone.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Lake said. “They finished harder than we did, and that’s how the outcome turned out.”
Yes, indeed: that’s how the outcome turned out. It didn’t matter that Bryant had six catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns. It didn’t matter that junior receiver Jordan Chin added his second touchdown catch in the past two games.
The Huskies were buried under an avalanche of Utah’s body blows. Interceptions. Incompletions. Penalties. Missed tackles. Blown coverages. Feeble pass rushes. Poor play calls.
Add it all together, and you get another second-half collapse. You get a fourth Pac-12 loss and a third defeat inside Husky Stadium. You get a road team waving a comically large flag in front of its fans as the home faithful files out.
You get long, sleepless nights and questions without answers.
“When you struggle in the fourth quarter two weeks in a row on both sides, how do you explain—”
“I don’t know,” Petersen interrupted in the postgame news conference. “We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter, for sure. Good teams are good teams for a reason. They play well when it matters, and they’re playing better than us in the fourth quarter.”