Confirming: The Rose Bowl is obligated to take the winner of Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship. The news is important in case you were among the witnesses whose cringes were so severe that vision was impaired, and you walked away seeking medical attention.
In a title game with all the elegance of hiking boots in a clothes dryer, the Washington Huskies slow-rolled the Utah Utes, 10-3 (box). In a conference football season where mediocrity went rogue, and controversies were the rage, the season ended with representative feats for the sparse crowd at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara: No offensive touchdowns, and losing coach Kyle Whittingham screaming his contempt post-game at an official for a no-call on Utah’s final offensive play.
“Nothing,” said UW coach Chris Petersen, “has been easy this year.”
But for the Huskies, at least, it has also been victorious. As Pac-12 champs, the Huskies met the preseason expectations of many, even though at 10-3 with a decaying offense, they impressed few in the national TV audience who may have seen the 11th-ranked Huskies for the first time.
Nevertheless, for the first time since 2000, they are going to the Rose Bowl, against either Ohio State or Michigan. Still, even Petersen acknowledged the awkwardness.
“It’s really hard to describe” the post-game feeling, Petersen said. “There was so much positive emotion, and so much frustration that we couldn’t get anything going. So happy for the defense and (yet wondering) ‘Can we win this game?'”
The college football world wondered right along with him. Frankly, the biggest reasons the Huskies survived were a freakishly lucky bounce of the ball off the leg of a receiver that launched CB Byron Murphy on a 66-yard interception return for the game’s only TD, and the inefficiency of Utes QB Jason Shelley, a redshirt freshman backup starting only his fourth game.
Yet . . .
The Utes were driving for the game-tying touchdown in the final 30 seconds until a fourth-down pass was broken up by Murphy, the game’s Most Valuable Player, who appeared to bump the Utah receiver from behind before the ball arrived. Absent a flag for pass interference, Whittingham was sent into a rage on the sideline as the game ended.
“Wouldn’t you be?” he told reporters. “Did you see the same thing I saw? I don’t know how I can say anything without getting fined, but I’m used to it.”
In a season scarred by a officiating scandal that influenced USC’s win over Washington State and caused major damage to the conference office’s credibility, having the season end on another controversy was pathetically fitting.
For the Huskies, they didn’t care about the troubles of the conference or Willingham.
They had a senior class, led by QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin that finished with 39 wins, three 10-win seasons in a row and earned three New Year’s Day bowl bids.
“We brought these guys here and felt so good about them,” Petersen said. “We played a number of them as freshmen. We really felt these guys were going to be good. That came to fruition.”
The game between the conference’s top two defenses — the Huskies won the regular-season meeting in Salt Lake City, 21-7 — figured to be low-scoring. But not the full Flintstone.
The Huskies led 3-0 at halftime, holding Utah to 65 yards of offense. The Utes didn’t reach UW territory until late in the first half, and never came closer than the UW 36-yard line. Their only score was a 53-yard field goal that barely cleared the crossbar. The Huskies, led by the inevitable LB Ben Burr-Kirven (10 tackles), intercepted Shelley on three of Utah’s final four possessions, and the fourth was the no-PI play.
The Huskies moved the ball some — 306 yards of offense, possessed more than 38 minutes — but mustered almost nothing down close. They failed on fourth down twice, Browning was intercepted and a field goal attempt at the end of a 10-minute drive in fourth quarter was blocked.
“It wasn’t like we couldn’t do anything against them,” Petersen said. “We got some hard five yards. We got down there (to the red zone) and couldn’t capitalize. Penalties, negative plays — we just couldn’t make the play.
“If we could have gotten another field goal or touchdown, we could have felt good about ourselves on both sides of the ball.”
Petersen preferred to look upon the stultifying outcome as a matter of conference balance.
“Our league is so competitive,” he said. “There’s so much parity. Everybody knows each other. Then you have to play really good ream a second time.
“You just try to figure out a way to keep battling.”
That, the Huskies did. And no matter the controversies nor the mediocrities, the Rose Bowl, where they will meet the winner of Saturday’s Ohio State-Northwestern game (unless the Buckeyes sneak into the College Football Playoffs, then it’s Michigan), is theirs.
“We’re excited,” he said. “When I grew up, that’s how I knew Washington — the Rose Bowl, competing year in and year out, doing awesome things.
“I haven’t been to a Rose Bowl. Our coaches have not. None of our players, of course, but a lot are from Southern California. It’s going to be quite an experience.”
Fortunately for the Huskies, style points are not required for entry.