SEATTLE – Fourth down, near the goal line, seconds left on the clock. California needed a touchdown and two-point conversion to send the game into overtime. Washington’s suddenly stringent defense needed just one more stop.
It came for the Huskies in the form of an overthrown pass on a fade pattern that saved Washington in a nail-biting 31-23 win over Cal on Saturday afternoon.
The Huskies (3-1 overall, 1-0 in the Pac-12) held off Cal (3-1, 1-1) on four consecutive plays that started with first-and-goal at the UW 2-yard line and ended with an incomplete pass that sailed over the head of go-to receiver Keenan Allen with 4 seconds left.
The final four plays of Cal’s 16-play drive included two incomplete passes, a 1-yard run and UW’s Justin Glenn and Cort Dennison stopping Cal running back Isi Sofele for a short loss on third-and-goal from the 1.
“You’ve just got to rise up,” Dennison said of the final goal-line stand. “There’s no secret. You know you’ve got to put your big-boy pads on and bring it. When your backs are against the wall, that’s when you start swinging. You don’t want to get hit; you want to hit them.”
Despite holding a lead for 43 of the final 48½ minutes of the game, the Huskies were never fully in control. It’s been a common theme for UW this season, as all three home games have seen the Huskies hold off opponents’ rallies in the closing minutes.
Unlike the previous games, it was the visiting team that struck first Saturday.
On a third-and-20 from its 10-yard line, Cal completed a 90-yard touchdown pass that had many of the catastrophic elements that have defined UW’s defense this season.
Huskies cornerback Quinton Richardson got caught in what he called “an idiosynchrecy of defense, a mistake on my part” and simply let Allen run by him. After catching the ball near midfield, Allen juked UW cornerback Desmond Trufant, ran down the sideline and ended up scoring when Richardson opted to swing at the ball rather than go for a tackle at the UW 15.
As has often been the case this season, Huskies quarterback Keith Price shook off the sudden score and led UW down the field for a quick touchdown of its own, hitting tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins from 20 yards out on a scramble-and-dump pass 81 seconds later.
The Huskies took a 14-7 lead with 3½ minutes left in the first quarter and led most of the way, but Cal eventually took a 23-21 lead after its opening drive of the second half.
UW responded with a field goal to lead 24-23 before the afternoon took on a somber glow while Huskies linebacker John Timu was loaded into an ambulance with a neck injury late in the third quarter.
After that, a UW defense that had given up points on five of Cal’s first seven drives clamped down to force two punts and a pair of failed fourth-down conversions.
The Huskies widened their lead when running back Chris Polk, who was bottled up for most of the afternoon, broke free for a 70-yard touchdown strike from Price with 12:13 remaining. Cal got stopped on its next possession before getting the ball back with one last chance from its own 13-yard line.
The Bears marched 85 yards, ending up inside the UW 5-yard line. But when Cal quarterback Zach Maynard overthrew Allen in single coverage against Richardson in the left corner of the end zone, the Huskies had held off another rally and kept the Bears from turning the tables on UW’s 16-13 win on the final play last season.
“I continue to be thoroughly impressed with our football team’s resiliency,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said afterward. “Maybe there’s something in the water here that I didn’t know when I took the job, but this group of guys has huge hearts. They’re tough-minded.”
UW’s defense ended up allowing 457 yards, marking the third time a visitor’s offense has gone over 385 this season.
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