Following a 38-3 win over Oregon with booming touchdown drives on the first two possessions Friday night at Stanford suggested that the ninth-ranked Washington Huskies were on a fast track toward the Pac-12 Conference championship game with two home games remaining.
But no. They took an exit marked “Edge of Earth” and fell right off it.
The UW defense, ranked No. 1 nationally entering the game, allowed the Cardinal (7-3, 5-3) 23 consecutive points and 406 yards of total offense to shred the distant hope of returning to the College Football Playoffs. The stunning 30-22 loss in Palo Alto could keep the Huskies (8-2, 5-2) from the conference title game.
If Washington State beats Utah Saturday and then wins the Apple Cup in Seattle, the Cougars will be the Pac-12 North champions because they own the tie-breaker over Stanford after a 30-27 win in Pullman last week.
Matters Friday night looked little like a year ago in Seattle when the Huskies crushed Stanford 44-6, a win that launched them into the thick of the CFP scene. This time, behind RB Bryce Love’s 166 yards on 30 carries despite a sprained ankle, was payback.
“We told (players) at the beginning of the week how Stanford played the game,” said Huskies coach Chris Petersen. “They shorten the game by minimizing possessions, keeping it manageable and playing physical.
“We can’t capitalize with 3-and-outs and fumbling.”
Nor did seven penalties for 73 yards help, most often crippling the offense, which converted just two of eight third downs. Stanford, meanwhile, converted 10 of 18 third downs, including a run of six out of seven over an eight-minute span of the third and fourth quarters, scoring 13 points on drives of 81, 17 and 14 yards.
Injuries began to show through. Missing starters DBs Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller from the secondary, the younger Huskies gave up several explosive plays, including a pair of 39-yard passes that were the longest of the season against Washington.
In his third career start, sophomore QB K.J. Costello completed just 16 in 27 attempts, but had no interceptions and gained 211 yards that provided balance for the swift Love, succeeding Christian McCaffrey as Stanford’s ground menace.
“We couldn’t wrap (Love) up,” said Petersen. “We didn’t tackle well enough, and let them move the chains.
“Penalties are what happens sometimes when you’re on your heels, trying too hard.”
The game turned in the second quarter, when the Huskies, up 14-7, had a fourth-and-1 at the Stanford 18. Passing on a field goal, Petersen chose to give to RB Myles Gaskin, who went on to have another good day with 120 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries. But this time the line provided no openings and he was stuffed for no gain.
Stanford took the ball and went 61 yards in 10 plays for a field goal to thwart any Huskies notion of a runaway.
“That was discouraging and frustrating,” Petersen said. “You try to put it on the O-line, and we didn’t get that done. It’s painful. Who knows how that drive finishes, but Stanford converts on us.”
That was perhaps another episode where injuries compromised the choices. All-conference LT Trey Adams is out for the season, and receiving corps has been depleted by the absences of WRs Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds and TE Hunter Bryant.
“Offensively, we were too stagnant, not explosive at all,” Petersen said, “and leaving our defense out there plays right into their hands.”
It certainly didn’t start out that way. Washington, going up-tempo, went 88 yards in 12 plays on the opening possession, and the second time needed only seven to go 89.
“We were frustrated on offense by starting (previous games) slowly, doing nothing, certainly on the road,” Petersen said. “That was a big emphasis.”
But the Huskies backed off on the throttle, then missed on the fourth-and-1. They let Stanford hang around through the half, when Love apparently had miracle healing in his ankle, which helped limit him in the first half to 43 yards on 13 carries.
He began wearing down the defense, and with Browning unable to sustain drives, Stanford took control, helping keep the Huskies winless at The Farm since 2007.
Petersen typically was having no patience for talk of down-the-rad consequences of the defeat.
We can’t play that game,” he said. “You look past something, and you get punched right in the face.”
Sometimes, you get punched even when you don’t look past.