“win and you are in”
That was the dominant headline among a bevy of story lines surrounding Friday’s Pac-12 championship game. The #4 Washington Huskies entered the night looking to end debate about their weak out-of-conference schedule and their singular loss to the USC Trojans and to essentially clinch only the second Pac-12 playoff invitation in the brief history of the College Football Playoffs.
Consider that debate concluded.
The Washington Huskies are your 2016 Pac-12 champions following their physically dominating 41-10 Pac-12 championship victory over the #8 Colorado Buffaloes.
Colorado entered the championship as the great comeback story of the NCAA. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Buffs had gone just 5-40 in conference games before this season. They had won just two conference games in the past three seasons, both against one-win teams in Cal and Oregon State, and at season’s start were given 101:1 odds of winning the PAC.
Despite the Buffaloes’ intent to establish a physical advantage to start the game, it was the Huskies that set the tone early. They took the opening kickoff down the field in a highly efficient drive that ended in seven. It was a typical UW drive where they used the pass to set up the run. In fact, UW ran five straight runs following an interference call on a long pass targeting John Ross. Those were the first points scored against Colorado on an opening drive all year.
Colorado, unphased by the punch in the mouth, answered with a first-quarter TD of their own. Their score followed a fourth-down stop of Jake Browning, who struggled for much of the first half in handling Colorado’s aggressive defensive sets.
Following those first two exchanges, the rhythm of the game was established. Both teams sought to establish a physical tone: Washington with a heavy dose of rushing offense and Colorado with constant blitzes and tight man coverage against UW’s receivers. As it was, both teams had their successes and we had a tightly fought game throughout the first half.
The worm turned quickly for Colorado and the game exploded in UW’s favor early in the third quarter. Two Taylor Rapp interceptions and a beautiful, bizarre John Ross TD reception on a pass that looked like it was meant to be a throwaway blew the game open in the Huskies’ favor. Even when things went well for the Buffs—in particular, on a crazy kick return in which the returner fumbled forward right into the hands of running back Phillip Lindsay—things still stalled. Colorado only managed three points in the frame and the last play was Liufau’s third INT (Ezekiel Turner) of the game.
Washington would go on to ice the game in a fashion that has become all too familiar to Husky fans. Players were rotated liberally, mistakes were minimized, and the Pac-12 championship was secured.
What It Means
Washington has reached the 12-win mark for only the second time in program history (1991). They now find themselves in a position that few would have dreamed possible at this stage of Chris Petersen’s rebuilding project. This young team, led by a sophomore quarterback, has a 98% chance (per FiveThirtyEight.com) of making the final four of the third installment of the College Football Playoffs.
This is a defining moment for Washington Huskies football. As recently as just last season, seven to eight wins seemed to be the ceiling for a Pac-12 program that was viewed as a helplessly dormant program. Petersen and his staff have not only awoken this sleeping giant, but have established a new pecking order in the conference. No longer can programs like Stanford, Oregon, or UCLA make claims to fans, recruits and coaches that their programs are where the conference standards are set. By leading the league in scoring and scoring defense, by torching opponent after opponent, and by catapulting nine players into first-team conference honors, the Pac-12 is now a purple conference.
The next step for UW is almost assuredly a playoff berth. Regardless of the seeding and the opponent, the Huskies are ensured to play at least one more game in front of a national audience that will more than double—if not quadruple—UW’s biggest viewership ever for a football game.
Elite programs don’t become so until these kinds of milestones are reached. Win or lose, the Huskies take those steps with big goals in sight and a bright future ahead.
Player of the Game
S Taylor Rapp (3 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 TD)
The Pac-12’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year singlehandedly generated the first 10 points of the decisive third quarter for the Huskies. His efforts were the clear turning point of the game and qualify him as the best of many well-qualified candidates for POG honors.
Honorable Mention: OG Jake Eldrenkamp, S Budda Baker, LB Keishawn Bierria, DL Elijah Qualls, DL Vita Vea, DL Greg Gaines, CB Sidney Jones, RB Myles Gaskin, RB Lavon Coleman, LB Ben Burr-Kirven, P Tristan Vizcaino.
Conference Championship Game Dots
- Husky great QB Warren Moon made an appearance as an honorary captain for the opening coin toss. The Huskies lost the flip and ended up receiving to open the game.
- The story of the game is UW’s rushing attack. The Dawgs ran hard and ran often once it became clear that Colorado was committed to an aggressive man-to-man and blitz game plan. Myles Gaskin (159 yds) and Lavon Coleman (101 yds, 1 TD) became the first running back duo to top 100 yards apiece in a Pac-12 championship game. For good measure, RB/WR Chico McClatcher added an 8-yard TD scamper at the end of the game.
- It’s hard to overstate the dominance that UW exerted over the line of scrimmage tonight. The defensive line was particularly noteworthy.
- UW had another three takeaways to up their season total to 33, tops in the FBS (BYU is second with 29). They’ve scored 119 points on those 33 takeaways.
- The Huskies really struggled to get the passing game going against aggressive Colorado blitzing. Browning attempted to set the right tone on the first play of the game with a long pass to John Ross that drew a pass interference. It was a particularly daring call given that it was thrown into double coverage, but it sent the message. UW was not going to fear going deep, and that call probably did as much to aid the effective first-half rushing attack than anything else UW ran in the frame.
- That opening pass was one of the few that Browning would throw in the first half. The run/pass mix for the first half was 27 to 12. Part of that was clearly gameplan as UW was able to move the ball at will on the ground. Part was scheme. Colorado blitzed on each of UW’s first five passing attempts and seven of their first nine.
- Freshman Benning Potoa’e got his first career start in place of an injured Connor O’Brien. Potoa’e played aggressively but struggled with penalties. He was rotated liberally with fellow linebackers Tevis Bartlett and Ben Burr-Kirven throughout the game.
- Browning’s two TD passes upped his season total to 42. That leaves him one short of the Pac-12 record of 43 currently owned by Cal’s Jared Goff.
- Shoutout to UW punter Tristan Vizcaino who had easily the best game of his Husky career. His five punts averaged 40.6 yards with four landing inside the 20 and another going for 61 yards.
- Nice to see UW senior Darrell Daniels grab a TD pass in his final conference game as a Husky.
- The College Football Playoff selections will be announced live via ESPN this Sunday.