Washington and Utah played on Friday for a chance to go to the Rose Bowl. The game, of course, is named for the beauty and elegance of roses, but this one was neither beautiful nor elegant. Instead, the Huskies and Utes ground each other into a pulp and all that came out on the other side was a defensive touchdown. Whatever the recipe, the Huskies emerged as Pac-12 Champions for the second time in the last three years and will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in over a decade.
Defensive MVP – Byron Murphy
I don’t know what Utah did to Murphy. Maybe they stole his lunch money as a kid. Maybe the state collectively said something about his mama. Whatever the reason, Murphy plays the Utes like he has some kind of vendetta against the entire state. In the first meeting, he decisively de-cleated Britain Covey. It’s impossible to say whether that hit had any lingering impact on Covey or whether he was seeing ghosts in the Husky secondary, but the Utes’ leading receiver was held to one catch for six yards in the team’s biggest game of the year. Did fear of Murphy have anything to do with Covey’s struggles? I wouldn’t put it past him.
Murphy only tallied a single tackle in the game, which is exactly what you want from your shut-down corner. There simply weren’t enough completions to his side of the field for him to put up a BBK-like tackle total.
Late in the third, Murphy made the play of the game. Jason Shelley slightly under-threw Siaosi Mariner on an out-route. Mariner slid to try a catch, but the ball popped out. Murphy vacuumed it up and ran the other way, 66 yards for the game’s only touchdown. The transcendent intersection of skill and good fortune echoed Mason Foster against Nick Foles, only with much higher stakes.
Murphy wasn’t done there. After yet another special teams blunder- an inexplicably low kick from Peyton Henry that was easily blocked- Utah had a chance to tie the game with about five minutes to go. Shelley scrambled away from pressure and just got a pass away to the right side as Joe Tryon and Greg Gaines closed in on him. Murphy beat Damari Simpkins to the spot and held on for another interception.
Finally, Murphy closed out the game for the Huskies in controversial fashion. Utah, trailing by a touchdown with 30 seconds to go, faced 4th and 12 from Washington’s 41. Shelley again tried to find Mariner over the middle. Murphy closed from behind and made a play on the ball. Replays showed that his chest hit Mariner’s back a split second before the ball arrived and he reached around to knock the pass away. A defensive pass-interference penalty would have been justified, but given the physical nature of the game to that point, the no-call was also defensible.
Murphy wasn’t alone in the secondary. Taylor Rapp made several stand-out plays, none bigger than his sack on third down late in the 2nd quarter to take Utah out of FG range before the halftime whistle. Jordan Miller made a similarly big play late in the third quarter. Shelley tried a deep ball down the left sideline. Miller tracked the ball perfectly and caught it over his shoulder.
Offensive MVP – Byron Murphy
No need to get cute here. Murphy scored the game’s decisive and only touchdown. Let’s just watch the highlight again.
Jake Browning wasn’t an MVP in the game, but he put together a solid performance. His lone “interception” was a perfectly thrown ball to Ty Jones on a slant that Jones juggled and somehow volleyed into the air with the back of his foot. It careened to a Utah defender, and Browning gets the statistical blame even though Jones was fully responsible. Browning similarly didn’t get much help from his nominal #1 receiver, Aaron Fuller, who continued his slide with only two catches on seven targets. Browning’s best play of the game came on a 4th and 5 in Utah territory in the second quarter. He surveyed the field and decided to scramble before he dove for a first down. The conversion set up a 29-yard FG attempt for Peyton Henry, which he miraculously put through for the first points of the game.
If there was a true offensive MVP, it was either Andre Baccellia or Myles Gaskin. Baccellia led the Huskies with eight catches on as many targets. Most of the catches occurred at or behind the line-of-scrimmage, though, and Baccellia failed to break out for big yardage after the catch like he did in the Apple Cup. Gaskin struggled to find running room all game. He kept pushing for 71 total yards, but it took him 23 attempts to get there (a poor 3.1 YPC average), in part because the longest run the Utah defense allowed was 11 yards.
Altogether, the game belonged to Murphy. He made the most pivotal and highest-impact plays. While it would have been fun to see Browning throw for 300 yards and Gaskin run for another 100, every Husky fan will always remember “The Byron Murphy Game” whereas a vanilla victory would have been more forgettable. In a way, that twisted brutalism has its own beauty and elegance befitting the Rose Bowl.