No. 12 Utah stays in control of Pac-12 South with win vs. Washington
SEATTLE — Utah finally forced some more turnovers to remain in control of the Pac-12 South Division race with three weeks left in the regular season.
Don’t count out the No. 12 Utes just yet from getting back into the College Football Playoff conversation.
Gionni Paul returned a fumble 54 yards for a touchdown, set up another score with an interception and Utah held off Washington 34-23 on Saturday night.
Utah (8-1, 5-1) leaned on big plays from its defense to overcome an inconsistent night offensively against the Huskies (4-5, 2-4). After going two weeks without forcing a turnover, the Utes forced three in the first half and made that stand up against Washington’s second-half rally.
"Going in we knew we were going to be facing a good defense. We wanted to prove which defense was better," Paul said.
Part of Utah’s success this season has been the ability to create turnovers. But that aspect disappeared in its lone loss at USC and again last week in a tougher-than-expected victory over Oregon State. That prowess for causing chaos was back against Washington, including the Utes’ third defensive touchdown of the season.
"If you get four takeaways and a score off one of them directly you’re not going to lose many football games," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Quarterback Travis Wilson ran 3 yards for a touchdown with 3:27 left in the fourth quarter after the Utes had gone scoreless in the second half. Wilson’s second TD run — he had a 4-yard run in the second quarter — capped a 9-play drive that was accomplished entirely on the ground behind the running of Wilson and Devontae Booker.
Wilson finished 12 of 25 passing for 155 yards with another 42 yards on the ground, while Booker rushed for 150 yards to go over 1,000 yards for the season and help Utah maintain a one-game lead on the chase group in the Pac-12 South.
Booker matched his season high with 34 carries.
"He’ll take the ball as much as you want to feed him," Whittingham said.
Paul’s first big play came early in the second quarter after Utah took a 7-3 lead. Paul recognized a formation from film and knew a slant pass on the backside of the play was coming. Paul baited Washington quarterback Jake Browning into the throw and jumped the route, returning the interception to the Washington 8. Two plays later, Devontae Booker scored for a 14-3 Utah lead, its second touchdown in 90 seconds.
Later in the second quarter, Paul jumped on Dwayne Washington’s fumble and went untouched to give the Utes a 21-6 lead.
"We were so close the other games of catching a pick, getting a forced fumble. It was just the extra effort," Paul said. "I believe we create that mistake. I believe sometimes we get to lackadaisical on plays and every play we have to go hard and great things happen."
Utah was unable to put away Washington, committing two second-half turnovers that allowed the Huskies to rally and pull within 24-23 on Cameron Van Winkle’s 49-yard field goal with 13:11 remaining. The field goal came after Washington had its second touchdown of the game called back due to penalty. Jaydon Mickens had a TD catch erased in the first quarter due to offensive pass interference on Brayden Lenius, and Myles Gaskin had a 23-yard score early in the fourth quarter called back on a holding penalty.
Any hopes of a final Washington rally was dashed when freshman quarterback Jake Browning was sacked from behind by Kylie Fitts and fumbled with 2:52 left. Stevie Tu’ikolovatu recovered the fumble setting off the celebration on the Utah sideline.
Gaskin finished with 93 yards rushing and one touchdown, while Browning was 23 of 39 for 257 yards and a 1-yard TD pass to tight end Drew Sample in the second quarter. Washington needs to win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible for the sixth straight season.
"We’ve got to be good enough to overcome those and not even give the refs an opportunity to call anything," Browning said. "It’s not like the refs lost us the game or anything like that. We lost the game because we turned the ball over too much and made some mistakes. We’ve got to learn from that and get better."