ATLANTA — Jake Browning knew the Washington Huskies couldn’t turn the ball over and still expect to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Chris Petersen knew it, too. So did anyone who watched either of these teams this season.
So when Browning threw an interception to Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson late in the second quarter that was returned 26 yards for a touchdown — a score that put Alabama ahead 17-7 in their 24-7 victory over UW in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Georgia Dome — it felt like the game was over.
It might as well have been. Washington didn’t score again, managing only 194 yards of total offense against the nation’s top defense. It didn’t matter that Washington’s defense held Alabama to just 5.1 yards per play. The Huskies lost the turnover battle, 3-0, and that was really all you needed to know about UW’s chances.
“They’ve had some games where it’s been close, and they’ll get a defensive touchdown and then it starts rolling,” said Browning, who was sacked five times and threw for only 150 yards. “I’ve just got to throw it away stop trying to make something out of nothing.”
Browning’s mistake was the most crucial, but it wasn’t Washington’s first. Star receiver John Ross fumbled after catching a pass in the first quarter, and Alabama recovered the ball and returned it to UW’s 40-yard line.
The Crimson Tide settled for a field goal to take a 10-7 lead, but Ross said he felt that turnover gave Alabama the momentum it needed to take control of the game.
“Our turnovers, my turnover, was a change in momentum for them guys,” Ross said. “Should have done better on my part. I think that changed the game.”
The Huskies entered the game leading the nation in takeaways with 33 and in turnover margin at plus-21. The Crimson Tide entered the game leading the nation with 10 defensive touchdowns.
Now they have 11.
“When you’re playing this type of game, when the margin for error is that small, those things are going to show up,” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
But it wasn’t just about UW committing turnovers. Washington’s defense had a chance to force at least two but couldn’t capitalize. The first came on Alabama’s first play from scrimmage, a pass up the left sideline by quarterback Jalen Hurts that UW safety Budda Baker read perfectly … but he dropped the ball and it fell incomplete.
Then, in the third quarter, UW forced Hurts to fumble as he scrambled, and Huskies linebacker Psalm Wooching appeared to have a chance to recover it in Alabama territory … but Alabama right tackle Jonah Williams fell on it, and the Tide retained possession.
“Our defense, like I said, they played the game that we needed to play on defense,” Petersen said. “If we just could have got a turnover or two more — you know, one of those turnovers could have helped us.
“But really, on offense, (if) we just hadn’t turned the ball over, I think that would have changed at least the feel of the game.”