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Washington passes toughest test yet at Utah to continue playoff pursuit

Washington offered the strongest proof yet that it is playoff-worthy with a 31–24 victory over Utah, decided by a 58-yard punt return touchdown by Dante Pettis.

One of the most important games in the Pac-12 this season ended with the conference’s College Football Playoff hopes intact. No. 4 Washington beat No. 17 Utah, 31–24, on Saturday to move to 8–0 and cement its status as a top contender for the national semifinals days away from the release of the first rankings of 2016 from the playoff selection committee.

Quarterback Jake Browning completed only 12 of his 20 pass attempts for 186 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, but the Huskies got 151 yards and a score on the ground from stud running back Myles Gaskin. More importantly, Washington got a huge boost from its special teams, as wide receiver Dante Pettis ran back a punt 58 yards late in the fourth quarter for a seven-point lead the Huskies would not relinquish.

Here are three thoughts on what unfolded at Rice-Eccles Stadium:

1. Washington needed this win

One major drawback of the playoff is that the best teams in the country typically have a larger margin for error. Losses aren’t as damaging as they were in the BCS era because four teams are invited to compete for the national title instead of two.

However, that generalization matters more for some teams than others. Squads with strong schedules, particularly in the non-conference portion of the season, are afforded more leeway than outfits than feast on FCS cupcakes in September.

In 2016, Washington falls into the latter category. The Huskies slammed possibly the worst team in the Power 5 conferences, Rutgers, in Week 1 and then roasted Idaho and Portland State in consecutive weeks. Those wins are valuable mostly because they were not losses; they didn’t do much to improve the Huskies’ profile. In the absence of utter chaos in the upper reaches of other Power 5 leagues over the final month of the regular season, the only way Washington can overcome its ugly non-conference slate to present a credible case for a playoff berth is by running the table in Pac-12 play.

This is not, by all appearances, an impossible task. Stanford can’t score, Oregon can’t stop anyone, UCLA is a massive disappointment and USC is still treading water in its first year under a new coach. Week 9 opened with just one team, the Huskies, ranked in the top 15 of Football Outsiders’ S&P + ratings. Still, the Pac-12 has not produced an undefeated conference champion since 2010 and no title-winner other than the Ducks or the Cardinal since 2009. Washington has quite clearly demonstrated that it’s a cut above the contenders in both the North and South divisions, but the Huskies nonetheless need to navigate a list of tricky road games over the course of a nine-game conference schedule. Even one stumble could prove fatal to their final four aspirations.

In this regard, Washington’s trip to Salt Lake City was basically a “must-win.” And unlike previous victories over Stanford and Oregon, whose value has depreciated over the last month-plus, a win over Utah should hold up well heading into selection Sunday. The Utes could actually face the Huskies again in the conference title game, giving them another opportunity to spoil Washington’s playoff bid. For now, they’re the most impressive data point on the Huskies CV.

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2. The Huskies aren't safe yet

Saturday was the first time in more than a month that the outcome of a Washington game was seriously in doubt in the fourth quarter. After barely surviving a trip to Arizona on Sept. 24, the Huskies stomped Stanford 44–6, routed Oregon 70–21 and steamrolled Oregon State 41–17. At the time they were recorded, those victories over the Cardinal and Ducks looked pretty good. Now they register as expected results against middling teams with a dysfunctional offense and an impotent defense, respectively.

That’s what made this win at Rice-Eccles Stadium so important. Not only does it shore up an otherwise paper-thin playoff résumé, it helps affirm Washington as every bit as good as its 8–0 start indicates. Utah was the first team Washington met in 2016 that currently ranks in the top 50 of the S&P + ratings. What’s more, the Huskies prevailed on the road in one of the conference’s most hostile environments against a physical, motivated team on a three-game winning streak.

That said, Washington may not have cleared its biggest hurdle yet. In the bizarro Pac-12 ecosystem of 2016, the Huskies need to get past 1) a USC team that lost its season-opener by 46 points, was awash in rumors over an imminent coaching change over the first month of the season and is now led by one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country; and 2) a Washington State squad that dropped its first two tilts of 2016, including one to an FCS foe, but has since won five straight. That’s without mentioning the league title game, which (as noted above) could pit the Huskies against the Utes, the Trojans or a resurgent Colorado team. While the Huskies should be favored in all of those games, Utah showed that, when opposed by an effective running game and a mobile quarterback, Chris Petersen’s team is far from the indomitable force its 142–62 scoring run over three previous games suggested.


3. Joe Williams continues to spark Utah

By this point, you’re probably familiar with Joe Williams’s story. He entered 2016 as the leader in a Utah backfield that lost All-Pac-12 second-team member Devontae Booker this off-season. After rushing for only 75 yards with zero touchdowns and two fumbles the first two games of this season, Williams decided to retire from football in September, with coach Kyle Whittingham telling reporters that Williams’s body “is just worn out.” Over the following month, as Utah tried to piece together a functional ground game, rushers who would have stepped up in Williams’s absence suffered a spate of injuries. The situation was so dire leading to Utah’s Oct. 15 game against Oregon State that the Utes, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, were “potentially down to their sixth-string back.” But after a sequence of phone conversations with Utah players and members of the coaching staff, Williams elected to return to the team.

His decision gave Utah a lifeline. Yet Williams has done much more than merely steady an offense gutted by health issues. He’s been one of the best running backs in the country. A week after compiling 179 yards on 34 carries in a five-point win over Oregon State, Williams gashed UCLA for four touchdowns and 332 rushing yards (on 11.4 yards per carry), the fourth-most in Pac-12 history and the most by any FBS back this season.

Williams continued his terrific run Saturday, tallying 172 yards and a score on 35 carries against the nation’s No. 16 S&P + rushing defense. The junior college transfer gave Washington fits all afternoon and proved a nuisance for defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski even in defeat. Williams should keep piling up big numbers in upcoming games against Arizona State and Oregon as Utah pushes for a division championship.