Huskies wind up smelling like a rose
On a team with the Pac-12’s winningest quarterback ever and the third-most productive running back in conference history, it was a defensive player who owned Friday night for Washington.
Cornerback Byron Murphy had two interceptions, including one he returned 66 yards for a touchdown, in leading the Huskies to a 10-3 victory over Utah in the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium.
With little to spark cheers during the game, the loudest reaction from the crowd, which was about half the size of the 35,134 announced, came after the final horn. When Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott took the microphone to congratulate Washington on its conference championship, the fans unleashed a chorus of boos.
“We do it the hard way sometimes, and this was one of those times when we did it the hard way,” Washington head coach Chris Petersen said. “But they did it. That’s the most important thing.”
As indicated by Petersen eluding postgame confetti to hand out roses to his players on the field, the No. 10 Huskies (10-3) most likely will head to Rose Bowl for the first time since 2001. They would have to make an improbable leap of seven teams in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings to reach the sport’s four-team showcase. ⏩ Sparse crowd: Low attendance caps rough week for Pac-12 commissioner. Story at www.sfchronicle.com/sports
Washington beat No. 17 Utah (9-4) for the 12th time in 13 meetings, including the second time this year. The Huskies went into Salt Lake City and won 21-7 on Sept. 15 and were even more stalwart on defense this time around.
Utah totaled a Pac-12 titlegame low 188 yards of offense and averaged 3.6 yards per play. Menlo Park’s Ben Burr-Kirven had a team-best 10 tackles in helping hold the Utes to 51 rushing yards on 25 carries.
The Washington linebacker left stopping Utah’s passing attack to Murphy, who had both of his picks in the second half. The first was the game-changer, and the second was the MVP-clincher.
After the first scoreless opening quarter in the history of the Pac-12 championship game, Washington got on the board about three minutes before halftime. Quarterback Jake Browning converted a 4th-and-5 situation with an 8-yard scramble and got the Huskies in position for a 29-yard field goal by Peyton Henry.
The Utah offense crossed midfield once in the first half and barely needed to get past the 50 on its first possession of the second half to tie the game. Matt Gay drilled a 53-yard field goal four minutes into the second half to make it 3-3.
Fittingly, in a game where the offenses struggled to do anything positive, it was a defensive play that made for the first real highlight. Utah’s Siaosi Mariner lost the handle on a Jason Shelley pass as Mariner slid, and the ball popped into the air off the back of his leg.
Murphy grabbed the ball out of the air and returned the interception 66 yards for a score that put the Huskies ahead 10-3 with 4:11 on the third-quarter clock.
“Once the ball popped into the air, I just knew I had to make that play,” Murphy said. “The opportunity was there, and I made sure that I took it.”
John Penisini blocked Henry’s 38-yard field goal attempt with 5:10 remaining to give the Utes another last chance to knot the score, but they were facing a 79-yard field and had totaled just 133 yards in the game’s first 55 minutes. Murphy ended those hopes with his second interception, and just for good measure, he broke up a 4th-and-12 pass with 12 seconds left that allowed the Huskies to run out the clock on the victory.
The win marked the 39th for Browning, who set California state records with 16,775 passing yards and 229 touchdowns at Folsom High. He went 21-of-33 for 187 yards against Utah, and Myles Gaskins, who entered the game with 5,131 career rushing yards, had 23 carries for 71 yards.
Utah got 137 passing yards from Shelley, who replaced injured starter Tyler Huntley four games ago, and 37 rushing yards from Armand Shyne, who took over after Zack Moss’ knee injury the same week.
“The Rose Bowl was eight points away,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s bittersweet. I’m proud of what we accomplished, but you always want more.”
Above, Washington cornerback Byron Murphy returns an interception 66 yards for the game’s only touchdown in the third quarter. Below, Washington head coach Chris Petersen hoists the trophy after the Huskies won the Pac-12 Football Championship game at Levi’s Stadium.