At around 4:30 Saturday afternoon, the Washington Huskies trotted into a billow of purple smoke that accurately depicted college football’s ever-changing championship picture.
As the Huskies slapped backs, pumped chests and implored the crowd to create the kind of noise that would cause their opponents from USC to flinch, America’s No. 2 team in the college football playoff rankings was part of a more unexpected mob scene at Clemson. A late field goal had enabled Pittsburgh to upset the Tigers and rearrange the balance of power.
Meanwhile, some 2,700 miles away, the Pitt-Clemson score was posted on the Husky Stadium video board. Washington fans hardly needed additional reason to achieve fever pitch Saturday, but that’s what happened. With a victory, the No. 4 Huskies were in a position to virtually assure themselves of a bump-up in the rankings.
Had the top four teams held serve through the conclusion of the regular season, the UW would have been assigned the tall order of playing defending champion Alabama in one of the New Year’s Eve semifinal games: the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
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Atlanta is not technically a home site for the defending champion Crimson Tide, but it’s not exactly road territory, either.
Perhaps all this conjecture was a distraction for a bunch of guys whose coach preaches the necessity of maintaining a week-to-week regimen. In the world of Chris Petersen, the only thing less relevant than the future is the past, but how can college athletes be expected to ignore the once-in-a-generation possibilities that awaited a 9-0 team?
Whatever their mindset, USC’s physical advantage had as much to do with UW’s 26-13 defeat as anything else .
The Huskies started well, with a short Jake Browning-to-John Ross pass that Ross zig-zagged into a 25-yard gain to the UW 48. On their second play, Browning hooked up with running back Myles Gaskin for 9-yard completion.
From that point on, the most anticipated game in memory turned into a slog. Ross took the ball on an end-around the Trojans sniffed out before it had any chance to develop. Nothing doing on the third-down pass and suddenly a drive that began with a pair of crisply executed plays concluded with a punt.
Unforced Washington errors in the first half included a 15-yard penalty called on safety JoJo McIntosh for unsportsmanlike conduct — it helped set up a field goal — and a Browning interception delivered into tight coverage. And to think: On the previous play, the Huskies were beneficiaries of an overturned call that erased USC’s touchdown return of what originally was ruled to be a Browning fumble.
The mood of impending doom only intensified when junior linebacker Azeem Victor was carted off the field before halftime. Although no details about his condition were revealed Saturday, Victor’s right leg was put in an air cast — his night, and very possibly his season, over.
Without Victor and defensive end Joe Mathis, out for the rest of the year with a foot injury, Washington’s pass rush was all but neutralized. The pressure they’ve put on quarterbacks is among the reasons the defense took the field as college football’s 11th stingiest scoring defense, but USC’s Sam Darnold rarely was hurried en route to throwing for 287 yards.
But it was the Trojans’ quicksilver defense, faster than anything the Huskies have seen this season, that made preserving their 12-game winning streak such a challenge. Unable to run the ball on the early downs, Washington typically found itself facing third-and-long.
After Darnold’s perfectly placed touchdown pass fattened USC’s lead to 24-13 early in the fourth quarter, Browning still had time to lead a comeback and, along the way, enhance his Heisman Trophy candidacy with a “Heisman Moment.”
But the Huskies went three-and-out, and when they got the ball back, there was less time. The drive that advanced them only to midfield turned out to be a microcosm of the three-hour struggle, with Browning completing a couple of throws for first downs but more or less besieged.
And on the drive after that, Browning launched a pass picked off at the UW 35-yard line. There would be no Heisman Moment for the sophomore, and no participation in a semifinal requiring a 13-0 record for admission.
During halftime, Peach Bowl representative Tilden Martin pointed out how, before the game got accepted as part of the rotating playoff cycle, it was known for the fun it offered players and fans alike.
“There’s lot of attractions within walking distance of the team hotels,” he said, noting one popular destination spot is a museum devoted to a famous movie associated with Atlanta.
The Huskies won’t be walking through the museum any time soon, but they can relate to the title of the movie.
“Gone With The Wind.”