SEATTLE — As they did against Stanford two weeks ago, the University of Washington waged a spirited second-half rally against a nationally-ranked opponent on Saturday.
But unlike their victory over the Cardinal, the Huskies could not pull off another remarkable late comeback win in a showdown with USC at CenturyLink Field.
The Huskies had a punt blocked for a touchdown and suffered four costly turnovers — two interceptions, two fumbles, all of them attributed to UW quarterback Keith Price — in a 24-14 defeat to the 11th-ranked Trojans.
It was “a frustrating loss, to say the least,” Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “You have four turnovers and throw in a blocked punt, which is really another turnover, and that’s five. Against good teams, (that makes it) hard to win.”
Moreover, the Huskies spotted USC 10 early points, narrowed the deficit with a late first-quarter touchdown, and then gave up 14 unanswered second-period points to trail 24-7 at halftime.
“We took the field and didn’t respond great in the first half,” Sarkisian said. “When you spot good teams leads, and when you go to the locker room at halftime (trailing) 24-7, it makes it hard to win. … We need to find a way to start our engine and play at a high level from the opening kickoff of the ballgame. To do it with a real sense of urgency and want-to, because when we do that we’re pretty good.”
Still, Washington was often the better team after halftime. On the UW’s second possession of the third quarter, and using a no-huddle offense that seemed to bother USC, the Huskies covered 76 yards in just four plays, with Price finding Austin Sefarian-Jenkins down the middle for a 29-yard touchdown.
Washington had another promising drive that ended with a missed field goal on its next possession, but early in the fourth quarter the Huskies pushed near the USC goal line. And then came what was undoubtedly the game’s most pivotal play.
On a second-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Price faked an inside handoff and started to his left before trying to cut up inside. He had the ball at his chest, where it was raked free by USC safety Jawanza Starling, who then recovered the fumble.
“I was trying to make (Starling) miss,” Price said. “I almost made him miss, but he kind of got a late hand on it. My ball security was bad. … I didn’t execute. That’s probably a play where I tried to do too much.”
The Huskies had a few final chances, but Price threw an interception on Washington’s next possession midway through the fourth quarter and then fumbled the ball away a second time with just 1:20 to play in the game.
The turnovers aside, Price was often outstanding. After opening the game with two incompletions and an interception on his first three passes, Price completed his next 16 passes through the first, second and into the late third quarter. One of those was a strike to wide receiver Kasen Williams at the right edge of the end zone for Washington’s first-quarter TD.
Down by 17 points, Sarkisian got into his team at halftime, questioning their effort and intensity. He told the offense “that we were just kind of running plays, that there was no edge to us,” running back Bishop Sankey said.
“I feel like in the second half we kind of got our edge back,” Sankey said, “but by that time the damage had already been done.”
“I was extremely proud of our football team in the second half,” Sarkisian said. “They responded, they battled, they competed, and they showed a great deal of mental and physical toughness in the second half.”
Saturday’s game was the sixth of Washington’s schedule, putting the team at the season’s halfway point. The Huskies are 3-3, with all three of the defeats (and one of the wins) coming against teams ranked in the nation’s top 10 at the time they faced the Huskies.
“I think it’s obvious that we were faced with an extremely challenging schedule in the first (half) of our season,” Sarkisian said. “But from the looks of it, it’s not getting any easier as we move into the second half.”
Washington travels to Arizona next week and then returns to play host to Oregon State in two weeks, “and those are good football teams,” Sarkisian said. “So we have challenges that lie ahead.
“But with all of the adversity we’ve faced, I’ve been proud of our kids with their effort. I would’ve really liked to have been 4-2 (at this point), rather than 3-3, but I think there’s a lot of good opportunities ahead for us to play better football, to give ourselves better chances to win, and then to see where we’re at when December rolls around.”