No. 4 Washington proves it can ‘grind it out’ in Playoff-boosting win vs. Utah

Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen reacts during the first half against the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

SALT LAKE CITY — It has all been tremendously entertaining, the fast starts, the style points, the glittering perfect record, the return to relevance. It was clear in the first seven games that No. 4 Washington is the Pac-12’s most complete team, its best and only real hope for the College Football Playoff.

A grinding, 31-24 victory against No. 16 Utah on Saturday was something very different. And in an important way, something much better.

“This, to me, is the real football,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “The real Pac-12 football.”.

No. 4 Washington holds off No. 16 Utah to bolster Playoff bid.

And the real Huskies, as it turns out, are what we thought: real good.

As the season developed, it had become more difficult to evaluate them. They’d blown out Stanford and Oregon, sure – but so did Washington State, only in reverse order. Neither the Cardinal nor the Ducks are good. With the Pac-12’s hierarchy turned upside down, what did those impressive victories really mean?

On Saturday afternoon, we learned far more about Washington than in any of those blowouts. The Utes had fallen off the radar after a loss at California, but they’re solid, and play physical defense, and when they tied it at 24-all in the fourth quarter, a packed house at Rice-Eccles Stadium whipped into a frenzy, they were primed to spring the upset trap.

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Instead, Dante Pettis grabbed a punt and took it 58 yards for a touchdown and Washington is 8-0. On Tuesday when the initial College Football Playoff Top 25 is revealed, we’ll learn what the selection committee thinks of their body of work so far. But after surviving on the road, the Huskies look even more like a legitimate contender than in all of those easy victories.

“It shows that we fight,” Pettis said. “I know a lot of people were saying we only get blowout wins or we weren’t playing anyone good, but when you come into a place like this and play a good team and win a close game like that, it shows a lot about us.”.

For a change, it was more grit than flash. After grabbing an early 14-0 lead, Washington ran into serious trouble – partly of its own making; three defensive penalties extended drives for Utah touchdowns. The Heisman moment for sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, such as it was, came when he dropped a pooch punt down at the 1.

“I’m not gonna do it any better than that,” he said, chuckling.

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That led to a three-and-out and from there to Pettis’ punt return when the Huskies absolutely, positively had to have it. With a little more than three minutes left, he took the ball and backpedaled, and then reversed course, swerved to the sideline and raced into the end zone.

Moments later, after the defense had snuffed out Utah’s last shot at tying, Pettis was the last Husky player to leave the field – and only then, probably, because a Washington staffer bellowed: “Dante! C’mon! Hey! Hurry up! We’ve got to go!” He and his teammates lingered a while afterward, as if understanding what they’d done. Winning a tight game on the road wasn’t more fun, exactly, than beating Stanford 44-6 and Oregon 70-21 and all of those other blowouts. But it was, Pettis said, “a lot more thrilling, more exciting.” More satisfying, too.

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And for the rest of us and maybe the Huskies, too, more revealing.

“You never really know until you’re in that situation,” Browning said. “But I know we can battle.”.

TV replays showed a couple of questionable blocks during Pettis’ punt return. But no flags flew – which means go ahead, cue the conspiracy theories about whether the Pac-12, left out of last year’s Playoff, would prefer its best or perhaps only Playoff hope keep winning. But Washington was the better, more talented team.

The Huskies look the part: very good defense, solid running game, a playmaking quarterback. Their biggest remaining challenges would appear to be USC in two weeks and the annual Apple Cup battle with Washington State, this time on the road. Two-thirds of the way through the season, Washington seems ready to outrun the Pac-12. But it’s also possible Saturday was a taste of what they’ll face the rest of the way.

“This is how it goes,” Petersen said. “Grind it out in the fourth quarter. This is how it is from here on out.”.

If so, the Huskies look like they can handle the challenge. Beating opponents by an average margin of 33.7 points, as they’d done in their first seven games, says plenty. But winning Saturday, in a road struggle against a good team, might have said more.

“They’ve come out and been ready to play and started fast and gotten good momentum,” Petersen said. “That’s all fun. That’s fun, and it’s nice. But I do like hard situations and having to find a way. I think that’s gonna give us some confidence down the road.”.

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