SEATTLE — Through a sluggish and sometimes sloppy first half, the University of Washington football team was in danger of losing the Apple Cup to rival Washington State for the second consecutive year.
But in a familiar pattern for the Huskies this season, they dominated the third quarter with 17 unanswered points to erase WSU’s 10-3 halftime lead. Washington then used two fourth-quarter interceptions to seal a 27-17 victory in Friday’s regular-season finale for both teams, which was played before 71,753 spectators on a cool but otherwise weather-neutral afternoon at Husky Stadium.
The victory improves Washington’s season record to 8-4, the best in Steve Sarkisian’s five-year tenure as head coach, and with one game yet to play — an as yet undetermined bowl game, likely sometime in late December.
“I’m proud of our team,” Sarkisian said. “You get in (cross-state) rivalry games and you never know how it will go. … We were very choppy offensively in the first half. We just weren’t in rhythm.”
But in the third quarter — a period Washington has dominated 177-65 in 12 games this season — the Huskies put up two touchdowns and a field goal in the space of 8½ minutes, and then tacked on another touchdown late in the fourth quarter for the final 10-point margin.
“What’s been indicative of this team all year long has been our ability to come out in the third quarter and make really good adjustments,” Sarkisian said. “The team remained focused and played an awesome third quarter. … The offense found their rhythm. They really played a tremendous second half.”
Senior quarterback Keith Price, playing his final game in Husky Stadium, led the second-half rally, completing 10 of 12 passes with one touchdown after intermission, and then capped his afternoon with a 2-yard stroll to the end zone after a beautiful read-option fake to running back Bishop Sankey for the game’s final points.
Sankey, meanwhile, etched his name in the UW record book with his 36th career touchdown and rushed for 200 yards to push his season total to 1,775. Both are the top marks in Husky football history.
But for all the individual heroics, and there were certainly others for the Huskies, the day’s most important number was eight — Washington’s win total in 2013, ending a three-season streak of 7-6 records.
Getting an eighth victory “was a big deal,” UW offensive tackle Micah Hatchie said. “We all talked about it, about getting over the seven-win hump. The past three years we’ve been ending up with seven wins, and today we finally came out with eight.”
For the Huskies, though, closing the regular season with a win was very much in doubt after two quarters. The Cougars spotted the home team an early field goal and then controlled the game through the rest of the first half, building a 10-3 margin that could have been even bigger. WSU reached the UW 25-yard line just before halftime, but poor execution and clock management in the late moments kept the Cougars from even getting a field-goal attempt.
The Huskies used their halftime to make some adjustments but, more importantly, to perk up emotionally. Sarkisian did his part with a spirited message before sending his players back out to the field.
“Coach just said, ‘We’re a second-half team,’” linebacker Travis Feeney said. “(He said), ‘We’re the best second-half team in the nation, and we’ve just got to show it and play hard. The offense is going to keep making plays if we give them the ball, the defense is going to make stops, and we’re going to win this.’”
“The energy in the locker room at halftime was unreal,” place-kicker Travis Coons said. “And the way we came out and played in the second half was awesome.”
Washington forced punts on WSU’s first three offensive possessions, and the Huskies followed the first two with touchdown drives of 85 and 60 yards. The third march stalled at the Cougar 21, and Coons booted the second of his two field goals.
Washington State countered with a prolonged scoring drive in the fourth quarter, cutting the lead to 20-17, and the Cougars then forced a UW punt to take over at their own 13-yard line with 5:26 to play in the game. It was a chance to drive the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown or at least a game-tying field goal.
Instead, UW cornerback Gregory Ducre came up with the defensive play of the game, snagging an off-the-mark pass by Cougar quarterback Connor Halliday for an interception at the WSU 37.
Washington reached the end zone in seven plays, all on the ground, with Price gaining the final 2 yards around right end with 2:08 to play in the game.
At that point the Cougars needed a miracle to win, and there would be none this day. Halliday threw two incompletions and then another interception with 1:45 remaining, and the Huskies were able to run out the final seconds.
Washington likely would have received a bowl invitation even with a loss to the Cougars. But a UW win makes that a sure thing, “and I’m excited about the opportunity to go play another game with this group,” Sarkisian said. “We’re a good team and we’ve been playing hard all year.”
The Huskies will wait a few days to find out their bowl-game destination, and Sarkisian says he has no great preferences. “Wherever they send us,” he said, “we’ll go play.”