SEATTLE — Washington’s football season was unquestionably at a crossroads on the evening of Oct. 20 following a 52-17 beatdown at Arizona that seemed as mystifying to players and coaches as it did to UW fans.
Three weeks later, though, the Huskies have safely navigated their way back onto the right course.
A 34-15 win over Utah at CenturyLink Field Saturday night was UW’s third in a row and assured the Huskies (6-4) of at least a .500 regular season while also making them bowl eligible for a third straight season.
The last two years, mere bowl eligibility was something to be celebrated. Saturday night, though, UW coach Steve Sarkisian took a more muted approach, referring again to the team’s preseason goal.
“We talked early on as a football team that this season was about taking the next step,” he said. “We aren’t here just to get bowl eligible. There is plenty of meat left on our bone to go eat. And our goal is next Saturday — we get a chance to eat again.”
Indeed, with two regular-season games remaining against 1-9 Colorado on Saturday in Boulder and 2-8 Washington State on Nov. 23 in Pullman, UW will be favored to finish 8-4. That would be the team’s most wins since 2001.
And while it may not be a direct leap into championship contention, an eight-win season with a chance at a ninth in a bowl game would unquestionably mark another step in progress in the fourth year under Sarkisian.
The Utah game might have been the team’s best overall performance of the season as the Huskies outgained the Utes 437 yards to 188 — a season-high for UW — and put the game away with a particularly dominating fourth quarter. UW outgained Utah 95 to minus-16 in the fourth quarter, keyed by a 16-play, 82-yard drive that resulted in the final touchdown.
“This is a really cool win for our team because I thought we executed in all three phases really well,” Sarkisian said.
It was a third straight sterling performance by a defense continuing its seasonlong revival under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Huskies have allowed just 45 points in the last three games. UW allowed more than 17 points once in six home games, a 24-14 loss to USC when turnovers and special teams mistakes also contributed.
The offense, meanwhile, relied on the same formula it has since the Arizona game, when UW threw 52 passes. UW has shown more balance since with Bishop Sankey rushing for 162 yards against Utah (he has 443 yards in the past three games), giving him 1,017 for the season, becoming the 10th Husky player to top the 1,000-yard mark for a season.
A consistent running game has allowed UW to be more selective in its passing game, and quarterback Keith Price responded with maybe his best performance of the season against the Utes, completing 24 of 33 passes for 277 yards — and for only the third time this season and first since the Portland State game, no interceptions. He also scrambled effectively, picking up two key third downs on the clinching fourth-quarter drive.
“I’m happy for him,” Sarkisian said of Price. “It’s been a grind for that kid this season. Nobody works harder, nobody prepares more, there is not a better competitor in that locker room; some of those guys might argue with me. But he is an awesome kid and he deserved to have a game like this to get going.”
Price has hardly been alone in fighting through the grind of the season, though. The entire team saw its resiliency and fight publicly questioned after the Arizona defeat. There was little doubting it against Utah, though, as UW seemed to come up with every key play it needed, such as a stop on a fourth-and-one in the third quarter, or recovering a fumble later in the quarter on a fumbled punt.
“Our team is getting better toward the end of the season,” said defensive lineman Danny Shelton. “That is how teams are supposed to be, keep improving during the season. I feel we are going to keep riding this.”