May 24, 2024

SEATTLE — When No. 18 Utah’s potential game-tying drive fell well short in the final minute of No. 5 Washington‘s 35-28 win, perhaps no one exhaled deeper than Huskies linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala.

It was Tuputala’s interception that killed a promising Utah drive near the end of the third quarter. But when he celebrated a yard and a half prematurely on what would have been a pick-six — fumbling to turn the ball over following a 76-yard return — it set up the possibility for a nightmare. The Huskies still led 33-28, but if Utah came back to win, the mental gaffe would have registered an unfortunate place in program history.

Instead, Washington’s defense responded with a safety on the next play and kept Utah scoreless the rest of the way. Disaster avoided.

“Unfortunately, you just get excited, and it’s a great lesson to learn from,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. “Fortunately, we won the football game, and so we can learn from that. But it is the defense getting back out there, getting some points with the safety and then just continue to pick up and play ball. I saw a lot of guys as the game is going along going to Zo and making sure that he knew they got his back.”

It was another case of Washington (10-0, 7-0 Pac-12) finding a new way to win, as it extended the nation’s second-longest winning streak to 17 games.

The contest was a shootout in the making early on. Utah had scored touchdowns on four straight possessions to take a 28-24 lead at halftime. In the second half, it turned into a defensive struggle, and the Utes failed to score again.

After starting the season with four straight comfortable wins, things have been more difficult since for the Huskies. That recent stretch included closer-than-expected wins against Arizona State and Stanford, but three other wins have come against ranked opponents, including a 36-33 thriller against Oregon, the highest-ranked one-loss team in college football.

“I think most of the games we’ve been in somewhat of control I think towards the end,” DeBoer said. “I would say the Arizona State game was probably the toughest one, where we just seemed like we were fighting an uphill battle and found a way. But being from a point of control for the most part there, especially in the fourth quarter with the lead, we’ve been able to pull ’em out.

“There’s something to be said about just not panicking and just playing.”

After Washington debuted at No. 5 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, DeBoer acknowledged the stakes are higher at this point in the season and that it’s a matter of trying to simplify things for his team given the added pressure.

There’s also quarterback Michael Penix Jr.‘s Heisman Trophy campaign running down a parallel track. Penix threw for 332 yards with a pair of touchdowns on Saturday, and while those numbers were below his season averages, it was the best performance by a QB against the Utes this season — all in a driving wind and scattered rain showers.

“It’s not over yet,” Penix said. “We got two more in the regular season to finish off with two more wins, go 12-0 — and, man, it’s right there in front of us. We just got to take advantage and make sure we put in the work. Never get complacent.”

Washington will travel to Oregon State next week in what could be a matchup of top-10 teams.

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