A boring blowout loomed. Yet by the final minute Saturday night in Treasure Valley, a storybook upset was imminent.
Trailing 23rd-ranked Boise State by three on the road, but with the ball and momentum, the 12-point underdog Washington Huskies needed to go 65 yards in two minutes with a quarterback playing his first game as a collegian to pull off the dashing deed.
Even getting to the Broncos’ 30-yard line would be within range of a tying field goal. An overtime, given the pucker that was consuming the mistake-prone Broncos, seemed likely to be a good time for Washington.
Improbably, the Huskies had a first down at BSU 19 inside the final minute. Then everything went backward or nowhere. A penalty, a sack and two incompletions backed up the Huskies to a 46-yard field goal attempt for Cameron Van Winkle.
He had a career-best 51 yards, and his kick was plenty long. But the Huskies’ first game in Idaho in 110 years, and coach Chris Petersen’s first game back since he worked the home sideline at Albertsons Stadium, ended weakly when the ball breezed outside the right upright with 15 seconds left.
Boise State 16, Washington 13 (box score). A grand opportunity missed for Washington.
Had the Huskies pulled it out, songs would have been written about and babies named after Jake Browning, the first freshman QB in Washington’s long football history to start his first game. Instead, a nice pat on the head will have to do.
“We threw him into the fire, no question about that,” said Petersen, who kept Browning’s role as starter a secret until game time, to little avail. “I don’t think many could handle it like that. He did an admirable job.”
It was admirable, but it wasn’t exactly good. The drama was set up by a resolute Huskies defense that shut down the Broncos in the second half (83 yards, 0 points) after nearly being run out in the first half, and a ferocious set of accomplishments by special teams (blocked PAT, blocked punt, two field goals and a 76-yard touchdown on a punt return by former Broncos recruit Dante Pettis, UW’s only TD).
But the epic finish depended on Browning, 19, who was 20 for 35 for a modest 150 yards and one interception. Apart from numbers, Browning simply fell victim to first-game-itis — indecision, haste, overthrows from adrenaline. But the worst thing was not on him, directly.
He had no help from a running game.
The Huskies gained 29 yards on 22 carries, meagerness that made the close outcome all the more astonishing. A 12-yard scramble by Browning was Washington’s longest run. RB Dwayne Washington led UW with 14 yards on six carries, although he did catch seven passes for a team-high 53 yards.
The offensive line, which had a collective 16 starts among the starting five, was much younger than the Boise State front seven, all seniors and juniors. Then again, more experience still wouldn’t have helped block the eight or nine defenders Boise State often brought into the box because they didn’t worry about Browning beating them.
They were right. Barely.
“We gotta run the ball better than that,” Petersen said. “We didn’t block anybody, that’s for sure.”
Petersen’s game plan called for low-risk plays and high percentage choices, perhaps odd after the reputation for wild stunts he acquired during his eight years as Broncos head coach, when he compiled a 92-12 record. But this Huskies team couldn’t afford any mistakes if it planned to stay close. Still, some of Petersen’s playcalls were bewildering, as was his use of backup QB K.J. Carta-Samuels, who made three cameo appearances to hand off the ball.
What kept Washington close was a quick-learning defense led by LB Azeem Victor, who was in on 14 tackles, and DE Joe Mathis, who had seven, including 2.5 for loss. After giving up first-half touchdown drives of 92 and 80 yards, the Huskies forced Boise State into seven punts in the second half, consistently thwarting QB Ryan Finley, a sophomore also making his first start, on third downs.
The defense and special teams were enough to keep it close, but putting it on a freshman QB for the storybook homecoming finish was too much.
“What we learned,” Petersen said, “was we have a ways to go.”
At least the way forward no longer includes a stop in Boise, where he was a civic hero before he left. He so dreaded the awkward emotions that he never bothered with the ritual pre-game handshake with the opposing coach, his former assistant, Bryan Harsin.
But his team didn’t get blown out. That would have been the worst. So missing a game-tying field goal by a foot, he can live with.