SEATTLE – Alphonzo Tuputala dropped the ball.
His teammates picked him up.
With 46 seconds left in the third quarter of a 35-28 Washington win, Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes took a snap from the Husky 24-yard line. The 6-foot-1 junior attempted to sneak a pass over the middle to tight end Landen King, who batted it skyward … and into Tuputala’s waiting arms.
The junior linebacker sprinted untouched along the sideline, as a sold-out Husky Stadium shook.
He held the football for a total of 76 yards.
He needed 77.
Tuputala instinctively dropped the ball at the 1-yard line in premature celebration. Cornerback Elijah Jackson patted him on the helmet to celebrate the assumed score. While the siren sounded inside Husky Stadium, Utah right guard Michael Mokofisi fell on the football.
It was a fumble.
It wasn’t fatal.
On the next play, UW defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa and linebacker Carson Bruener swallowed Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson for a safety, securing a 35-28 Husky lead.
No. 5 Washington (10-0) continues to be an imperfect team.
But not when it matters most.
“It’s a great lesson to learn from,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said of Tuputala’s mistake. “Fortunately, we win the football game, so we can learn from that.”
“It was pretty cool,” Bruener said of the safety. “We all have each other’s back. Our love for the defense — for one another — it’s unreal, honestly.”
As is the UW defense’s turnaround.
After starting the game with two consecutive punts, No. 13 Utah (7-3) closed the first half with four consecutive touchdowns. Junior Barnes’ previous career high for passing yards in a game was 235, collected in a 34-32 win over USC on Oct. 21.
On Saturday, he completed 13 of 17 passes (76.5%) and threw for 238 yards and two touchdowns … by halftime.
That included a 41-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Devaughn Vele (aided by an Elijah Jackson missed tackle), a 53-yard screen touchdown by part-time running back (and safety) Sione Vaki, and a floating 68-yard strike from Barnes to Vele (behind Husky safety Dominique Hampton).
Despite a persistent wind blowing off Lake Washington, Barnes broke through — and his teammates broke tackles.
But soon enough, the wind shifted in favor of Washington.
“I do think the staff did a nice job of trying to narrow (the defensive playbook) down and get the guys back to where they’re confident out there very quickly,” DeBoer said. “You saw that happen in the third quarter.
“That’s belief in what we’re doing, both ways — coaches to players, players to coaches. You could feel it in the locker room. Once they regrouped, it was time to go back out there and have that 1-0 mindset we talk about. They executed.”
That same Utah offense was held scoreless, managed 76 total yards and punted three times in the second half. Barnes completed 4 of 13 passes for 29 yards and two interceptions along the way.
UW junior cornerback Jabbar Muhammad — who finished with four tackles — said there was “a schematic shift, for sure. (Co-defensive coordinator Chuck) Morrell came in and made some great adjustments.
“We kind of went back to the basics, if I’m being honest with you. We didn’t abort the game plan, but we went back to the basics and what we were comfortable with. We were playing more sticky in the back end, tackling better and all types of stuff.”
UW’s offense did more than enough.
After going three-and-out on its opening drive, UW suddenly (and unsurprisingly) sprung to life — producing 24 points on its next four possessions.
Senior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. trotted in along the left edge for a 2-yard touchdown that gave the Huskies a short-lived 7-0 lead. The Heisman candidate quarterback later side-stepped a Utah rusher and flung a floater that wide receiver Rome Odunze centered under for a 34-yard score, his first of two touchdowns. UW junior running back Dillon Johnson plunged in for a 5-yard touchdown with 3:17 left in the second quarter, with tight end Jack Westover helping push the pile.
Despite the whipping wind, Penix completed 24 of 42 passes and threw for 332 yards with two passing touchdowns and a rushing score. Odunze caught three passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns, and Johnson added 104 rushing yards with 4.5 yards per carry and a touchdown (plus 28 receiving yards).
“He’s probably going to win the Heisman Trophy. I mean, that’s who he is,” Utah coach Kyle Wittingham said of Penix. “I would say he’s the front-runner right now, from my perspective. And he’s a lot like the kid at Oregon, Bo Nix, who gets it out so quick. All the great ones do get it out quick. If you hold on to the ball, you’re not going to be very effective.
“So he does a phenomenal job of getting the ball out, and he’s got a strong arm. He can make every throw in the book. There’s not a throw that he can’t make.”
Granted, the Huskies were tainted by smudges, too. With the game tied at 7 late in the first quarter, Penix overthrew tight end Devin Culp and Odunze in the end zone on back-to-back plays — inducing a 41-yard Grady Gross field goal. Two other UW fourth-down conversions were nullified by penalties, forcing Husky punts.
After Odunze secured a 33-yard third-quarter score, the junior wideout attempted a pass for a trick-play 2-point conversion … but tight end Culp stumbled and dropped the ball.
Despite the mental mistakes and missed opportunities, Washington extended a 17-game winning streak. Even after Gross’ 32-yard field-goal attempt to ice the game was blocked with 1:38 left, UW safety Dominique Hampton snared a diving interception on fourth-and-10 to dramatically shut the door.
Sure, the Husky defense had some struggles.
But, faced with adversity, UW didn’t drop the ball.
“We didn’t shake when Zo (Tuputala) had his near touchdown. We didn’t shake when the field goal got blocked,” Muhammad said.
“We were ready. We were all hyped up in the huddle before that last drive. We’re just a brotherhood.”