Washington’s 24-21 victory over Utah in the 2020 season was an emotional roller-coaster. The Utes’ win probability (according to ESPN) peaked at 95.5% just after halftime and remained over 70% with 1:09 left in the game. Nonetheless, the Dawgs once again had Utah’s number. Multiple time over the last half-decade, UW has come away from a tough game against Utah with a win that very easily could have (and in some cases should have) been a loss.
As emotional as the game was, is there anything to learn from the performance by looking back at it in the cold light of day? Not surprisingly, any reevaluation is going to revolve around the tale of two halves. The play calling, the execution, and the rhythm all made the team that came back out after halftime look like a totally different squad than the one that fell so far behind before the break.
The offense started the game promisingly enough. The Dawgs got some early momentum by forcing a turnover. Dylan Morris completed a quick slant to Puka Nacua to build some confidence in the passing game. Kamari Pleasant found a seam up the middle for a nice run. Then, Morris made a classic freshman mistake. He moved through his progressions from left to right. Pressure came up the middle and he moved to his right. In his urgency to get rid of the ball, he missed a defender sitting under the zone near the sideline and threw a wobbler right into his arms.
Utah converted the turnover into a Jake Bentley TD, so the Dawgs faced a deficit when the offense came back onto the field. The interception seemed to stick in the mind of Jon Donovan because the play calls were very conservative. Morris completed a one yard pass to Terrell Bynum, Pleasant ran for no gain, and Morris threw the ball well short of the marker to Bynum for a quick three-and-out. The next drive was more of the same- two short runs for Sean McGrew and an incomplete pass. Six snaps, two punts.
McGrew found a hole on a cut-back for a big gain to break up the three-and-out slump. Morris hit Nacua on another slant on fourth and four to put the Dawgs just outside the red zone. He lofted a fade to Bynum that appeared catchable, but Bynum was unable to haul it in. A delay of game pushed the ball back to the 22 and Peyton Henry hooked the FG to keep the goose egg on the scoreboard.
A third Utah TD created some urgency for the Dawgs with less than a minute before the half. Morris got the opportunity to do some improvisation and he was able to quickly move the ball across midfield with two quick passes. His heave into the end zone with no time on the clock did not look good and Utah came down with it to cap an ugly half with a second interception.
UW got the ball after the half and showed notably more inventiveness on the first drive. Cade Otton caught a short pass over the middle to convert a third down. Bynum got the ball on an end-around for a gain of a dozen. UW used the same motion with Nacua, which gave Bynum space along the sideline for a long completion. Pleasant punched it in and the Dawgs were finally on the board. On Bynum’s run and catch, the plays needed time to develop and the line held up, which was less of a common sight in the first half.
An Elijah Molden pick gave the Huskies the ball back in positive field position. It took a couple downs, but Morris found Otton in the red zone for a first down. Two stuffed runs and an incompletion short to McGrew forced UW to settle for a FG, still down two scores.
When Washington’s defense stuffed a fourth and one, Morris wasted little time getting Otton involved. He found his star tight end for a 20-yarder with a 15-yar personal foul tacked on to the end. From there, Morris rolled right and looked back left to find Otton for a TD. Otton made a nice move to get himself some room on the play, but Morris had to throw it well to get it over the defender and he executed perfectly.
Early in the fourth quarter, Washington got the ball with a chance to take the lead off of another Utah fumble. This time, UW could not get in gear and had to punt after two short passes and a run for no gain. After another punt, the offense continued to lean on Morris. He found Nacua on a short pass to start the drive. Then, he went deep left to Ty Jones, but badly underthrew the ball, leading to his third interception of the game.
Despite the three picks and numerous three-and-outs, Washington regained possession with under four minutes to play inside its own 20 with a chance to win the game. Morris sprayed completions to Bynum and Nacua to cross midfield. He found Otton to the left and Pleasant to the right to keep the drive going. He stopped up under pressure and hit Otton for his second TD of the game with 36 seconds on the clock. The defense held on and the Dawgs came away with a very difficult win.
The biggest lesson learned from this game was a reminder of, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Yes, Morris was a young QB without many reps at the time of this game. And his inexperience showed, both in a questionable decision that caused an interception and a poor throw that caused another. Of course, one of those picks came during a stretch in the game with extremely conservative play calls- passing only when the down and distance required it and keeping the QB’s reads as simple as possible. As the game went on, the score necessitated a liberalized approach. Morris shined when he had the opportunity to improvise and his receivers- namely Otton, Bynum, and Nacua- were able to get themselves into good positions.
This game also served as a reminder of how much the defensive performance can mean to the offense. When Utah was moving the ball at will early and pinning UW deep, the Dawgs had trouble getting drives started. When the UW defense forced Utah errors in the second half, it swung the game on both sides of the ball. Two of UW’s four scores came on short fields after turnovers.
Altogether, as exciting as the game was, the turnaround was not random. Otton, Bynum, and Nacua helped swing the game when they touched the ball more, which is no surprise because they are much more dynamic offensive players than the likes of Kamari Pleasant. While the process of getting the ball to those playmakers carries some risk, this game clearly demonstrated that the reward is worth the risk.