Santa Clara, Calif. • Utah’s Drive to Pasadena took one wickedly wrong bounce.
Washington’s Byron Murphy returned an interception 66 yards for a go-ahead touchdown after the ball caromed off the hands and thigh of Ute receiver Siaosi Mariner late in the third quarter. The Huskies claimed a 10-3 victory for the Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl bid Friday night.
The Utes’ last chance ended when Jason Shelley’s fourth-down pass intended for Mariner was broken up by Murphy on a questionable no-call with 27 seconds left, after they had driven to the Washington 40-yard line.
A half-hour after the game, Mariner sat in front of his locker with his head down, still wearing his uniform pants, as a teammate waved away reporters. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, having pleaded for pass interference on the last play, said postgame, “I don’t know what I can say without being fined. I was fired up, but I’m used to it by now.”
Although the Huskies (10-3) dominated the game statistically, the Utes (9-4) left Levi’s Stadium believing they could have or even should have won. They’ll live with the missed opportunity of the program’s first genuine shot at the Rose Bowl, while being relegated to one of the Pac-12’s other affiliated games.
“We felt like the Rose Bowl was within our grasp,” said linebacker Chase Hansen, who made 13 tackles. “That makes it tough.”
• Utah misses an opportunity for a Rose Bowl bid, falling to Washington for the second time this season.
• Utah’s offense struggles against the Pac-12′s top-ranked defense, posting 61 yards in the first half.
• Ute quarterback Jason Shelley throws three interceptions, after not being picked off in his first three starts.
Hansen’s regret was allowing the Huskies to convert 10 times on third or fourth down and keep the ball for 38-plus minutes, but the defense certainly did its part. “Tough to lose a game when you don’t give up a defensive touchdown,” Whittingham said.
“The defense had a great game,” Shelley said, “and we didn’t have their backs.”
The story was much the same in mid-September, when Washington took a 21-7 victory.
Utah’s defenders “were good the first time we played ’em and they were better the second time,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, whose team outgained the Utes, 306 yards to 188.
Eight years after Rose Bowl organizers welcomed Utah to the Pac-12 with a bouquet of flowers, the Utes played for a bid to the iconic New Year’s Day game. When the school accepted the conference’s invitation in June 2010, Randy Dryer, then the board of trustees chair, told the Tournament of Roses officials, “I don’t want to put any timetable on this, but you will see us again.”
And the Utes were 16 minutes away from earning that Rose Bowl berth, having played Washington evenly until the last minute of the third quarter.
Murphy’s play broke a 3-3 tie, just when the Utes were generating some momentum. If Mariner had caught the ball, Utah would have had a first down at the Washington 34.
After the Husky defense made another interception, Washington drove from its 6 to the Utah 21, keeping the ball for 10 minutes. But the Huskies failed to score, as John Penisini blocked a field goal try.
Murphy picked off Shelley again; this time, Utah’s defense forced a punt. The Utes took over at their 7 with 3:24 remaining. They made it to the Washington 40, but were stymied prior to the fourth-down failure.
Utah played the second half without top receiver Britain Covey, who was hurt on the opening kickoff of the half. He’s likely out for the bowl game, Whittingham said.
The Huskies generated 162 yards to Utah’s 61 in the first half, but Jaylon Johnson’s fourth-down deflection stopped one drive and Javelin Guidry’s diving interception ended another threat. Washington’s 3-0 halftime lead came via Peyton Henry’s 29-yard field goal late in the second quarter.
Matt Gay’s 53-yard field goal made it 3-3 on the Utes’ first drive of the third quarter, after Shelley found Jaylen Dixon for 25 yards and Demari Simpkins for 16.
Ute cornerback Julian Blackmon’s tackle after a catch on a fourth-and-12 play ended Washington’s next possession and the Ute offense responded with another promising drive, only to have the crazy bounce go the Huskies’ way.
So the Utes will await a bowl bid Sunday. Their destination will be a letdown, considering what was available to them Friday.