Washington punishes Pac-12 newcomer Utah
UW proved opportunistic in the first half, then punishing in the second, to win going away and improve to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in conference play, its best start since 2006.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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SALT LAKE CITY — In a game that marked their initial foray into the new frontier of the Pac-12, the Washington Huskies turned in an old-school performance.
Utah wanted to greet the Washington Huskies rudely as visitors for the Utes' first home Pac-12 game.
But it was UW that leveled all of the knockout punches, using some opportunistic plays early to stay in it, then unleashing the running of Chris Polk and a punishing defense to pull away late — a timeworn winning formula on Montlake — ultimately leaving town as 31-14 victors.
"Our guys played real physical and we out-hit them," said defensive coordinator Nick Holt, whose much-maligned unit got the last laugh on this night, holding Utah's running game to 17 yards, and only seven points until a garbage-time touchdown with seven seconds left.
By then, the game itself was also a surprising laugher against a Utah team that was a 10-point favorite, the win giving UW a 4-1 overall record and 2-0 in conference play, each the best since 2006.
"It just sends a message," said quarterback Keith Price, who rebounded from a shaky first half — by his own admission — to throw three touchdowns in the second half. "It just shows how good our team is."
Price's touchdown passes were all set up by the running of Polk, who had his best game of the season with 189 yards, with 145 coming in the second half. That included a 49-yard run on the second play of the third quarter that set the tone for what was to come.
"I thought Chris Polk and the offensive line dominated the second half of the football game," said UW coach Steve Sarkisian.
The Husky defense, meanwhile, pretty much dominated the whole game. It bent but didn't break in the first half, forcing turnovers twice inside the UW 10-yard-line that stalled Utah drives.
Washington took over in the second half — UW outgained Utah 198-28 in the third quarter — and never allowed a run of longer than 6 yards all night. Utah's 322 yards were a season low against a Husky defense that had taken a lot of heat through the first four games.
"We definitely had a chip on our shoulder," said middle linebacker Cort Dennison, whose homecoming to Salt Lake City proved as happy as he could have imagined. "We know that the first couple of games we definitely could have played a lot better and that there were a lot of mistakes that were made that were simple, easy mistakes and we tried to correct them. And I think tonight that showed."
UW's hard hitting included a shot that knocked out Utah starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, who sat out the second half after suffering a left-shoulder injury of unknown severity.
UW also got a lift from the special teams as Jamaal Kearse returned a fumble 18 yards on the opening kickoff — which was forced by Garret Gilliland — to put UW ahead 7-0.
The first half, though, was a slog for the Husky offense as it managed just 112 yards. UW, though, was able to move just enough following the second Utah turnover inside the 10 to drive for a 44-yard field goal by Erik Folk as the buzzer sounded to take a 10-7 lead into halftime.
Utah had 166 yards in the first half, with Wynn finding some room to throw at times. But as the UW defense has often done this year, it stiffened when it mattered most.
"The defense was the key tonight," Sarkisian said. "Their ability to keep us around until the offense could come around was critical."
At halftime, Sarkisian had some fun with Price, putting him on a stool in front of the rest of the team and asking him if he could "return to playing Keith Price football." Price was a mere 8 for 12 for 81 yards and an interception in the first half, saying he felt a little too anxious.
Polk, meanwhile, said he gathered the offensive linemen and asked them to hold their blocks for just a beat longer and that he promised to be more patient and allow the blocks to be made.
"I had to let stuff develop," he said.
He did just that on the second play of the quarter, the 49-yarder that set the tone for the second-half onslaught. Price concluded the seven-play, 80-yard drive with an 8-yard pass to Kasen Williams to make it 17-7.
A few minutes later, Greg Ducre picked off a pass from Wynn's backup, Jon Hays, setting up another TD drive that ended in a 23-yard pass from Price to Jermaine Kearse.
After forcing a punt, UW then drove 74 yards in 14 plays. The drive ended with a 17-yard pass from Price to Devin Aguilar to make it 31-7 and send the fans — who had been in an especially festive mood when the game began — streaming for the exits.
Utah finished with five turnovers to just one for the Huskies and was held to no yards on nine rushing attempts in the second half, typifying a breakout performance by the defense.
"I was surprised that we weren't able to run the ball tonight," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "There weren't any open holes."
And thereby closing the debate, on this night, anyway, whether the UW defense can help this team win.
"I just think we are growing," said Sarkisian. "Like I have said since the beginning of the season, we have a chance to be a good defense, and we think we can improve and we will improve weekly."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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