Line these desert ghosts up side by side, and it’s difficult to decide which is worst.
The Washington Huskies don’t win at Sun Devil Stadium anymore, and their recent losses here to Arizona State range from unsurprising (44-20 in 2007) to heartbreaking (Danny Sullivan to Chris McGaha in 2009) to embarrassing (53-24 in 2013).
How to describe Saturday’s defeat, then? All of the above?
It was certainly unsurprising, because it was a UW loss to ASU, after all, and the Huskies haven’t beaten the Sun Devils since 2001, a span of 10 games.
It was heartbreaking enough, too, because of how well the Huskies played in the first half — and because of how precarious their bowl prospects now become.
And it was surely embarrassing, because the Huskies led this game by three scores in the first half and by two scores at halftime, and still lost, 27-17, before a crowd of 51,695 who watched the Sun Devils score the game’s final 27 points and hand the Huskies their most inexplicable loss of the season.
So take a look at the interview room outside the visitor’s lockers, and how familiar is this?
An exasperated head coach lamenting missed opportunities and poor execution. A crestfallen quarterback lamenting missed opportunities and poor execution. A senior receiver lamenting missed opportunities and poor execution.
“We did nothing,” UW coach Chris Petersen said of the second half.
He’s not wrong. The Huskies led 17-3 at halftime, gave up 264 yards of total offense in the second half despite allowing only 133 in the first, gave up 17 points in the fourth quarter alone and turned the ball over on their final four possessions.
The decisive score was a 48-yard Kalen Ballage touchdown run, which came one play after UW quarterback Jake Browning threw the first of his three interceptions. ASU had already taken a 20-17 lead on a 23-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal, and Browning tried to force a second-and-18 pass that was intercepted by Kweishi Brown at ASU’s 26 and returned to UW’s 48.
Browning threw another interception on the Huskies’ next possession, tight end Joshua Perkins fumbled on the possession after that, and Browning capped the game with a meaningless pick in the final seconds.
But if the Huskies had converted a handful of scoring chances in the first half, their margin for error wouldn’t have been so slim.
Browning lofted a third-down pass toward the end zone from ASU’s 36-yard line on UW’s first possession, but it slipped just off the hands of receiver Jaydon Mickens. The Huskies punted.
“A competitive person like me, if it touches my hands I’ve got to come down with it,” Mickens said. “The sun affected the ball and where I knew it was, and I just followed the blind spot of the sun to catch the ball, and it was just a little out of my reach once it came out. But that’s no excuse. I’ve got to come down with those type of plays.”
On their next possession, Browning again threw a pair of catchable passes into the end zone, both intended for receiver Dante Pettis. Both flew just out of Pettis’ reach. The Huskies settled for a field goal.
After forcing ASU (5-5, 3-4 in Pac-12) to punt again, UW did score a touchdown when Myles Gaskin rushed 53 yards to ASU’s 1-yard line, then took the next carry across the goal line. And the Huskies could have scored another touchdown two possessions later when Perkins found himself wide open and running toward the end zone on a fourth-and-4 play from ASU’s 35-yard line … but Browning overthrew him, and the pass fell incomplete.
“It’s frustrating, because you feel like everything has to be just perfect for us to move the ball (and to) like sustain things, all the boxes have to be checked,” Petersen said. “We’re not there enough to create some things (when) it’s not all perfectly lined up.”
Still, after yet another Sun Devils punt — they punted on eight of their first nine possessions — the Huskies took a 17-0 lead on Browning’s 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darrell Daniels. The offense appeared to be clicking. The defense was all over ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici and the Sun Devils’ running game.
And the Huskies didn’t score again.
Gaskin, who rushed for 100 yards on his first 10 carries, netted only eight yards on his final eight attempts. Browning finished with a career-high 405 yards passing on a career-high 52 pass attempts, but missed a handful of throws to open receivers. Cameron Van Winkle missed a 46-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter that would have given the Huskies a 20-10 lead. ASU scored its first touchdown on a 3-yard Ballage plunge earlier in the quarter. He finished with 92 yards rushing on 11 carries.
Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said UW too often failed to wrap up in the second half, repeating that “we’ve just got to finish.”
Browning, particularly dejected as he answered questions afterward, said the same.
“I felt like we were moving the ball the whole game,” he said. “It’s just we have to finish, and capitalize on the opportunities that are handed to us, and that starts with me.”
At 4-6 overall (and 2-5 in Pac-12 play), the Huskies now must win their remaining two games, at Oregon State and home against Washington State, to qualify for their sixth consecutive bowl appearance.
“We’ve got to see who’s going to be those competitors and those guys that are going to fight no matter what the outcome of the game is,” said Mickens, who moved into second-place all-time on UW’s career receptions list with 183. “They’re just going to go out and give their all. And I believe this team is going to do so. Win or lose, we’re still a team, and we’re still going to fight to the end.”
That end just might come sooner than they hope.
SATURDAY: UW (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) at Oregon St. (2-7, 0-6), 3 p.m., Pac-12 Network, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM