SEATTLE — For the second straight game, Washington was in position to potentially knock off a highly ranked Pac-12 foe.
But once again, the Huskies faltered late and blew a fourth-quarter lead.
Highly touted Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson returned a third-quarter interception for a touchdown as the ninth-ranked Utes rattled off 20 straight second-half points and handed Washington a 33-28 loss Saturday afternoon at Husky Stadium in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 championship game.
“We’ve gotta play better in the fourth quarter, for sure,” Washington head coach Chris Petersen said. “Good teams are good teams for a reason — they play well when it matters. And they’re playing better than us in the fourth quarter.”
The second-half struggles were an all too familiar theme for the Huskies, who blew a 14-point second-half lead two weeks ago in a 35-31 home loss to then-No. 12 Oregon.
Washington (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) held a 21-13 advantage late in the third quarter of this one, but the tide turned on one of several costly mistakes by Huskies quarterback and former Lake Stevens High School star Jacob Eason.
Johnson, a projected first-round NFL draft pick, stepped in front of a second-and-long Eason pass to the left sideline and snagged an interception. He then ran 39 yards the other way for a pick-six that cut Washington’s lead to 21-19 and kickstarted a string of 20 straight Utah points.
Eason also lost a first-quarter fumble that led to a Utah field goal and threw an ill-advised interception into triple coverage that ended a promising drive early in the second half.
“When you turn it over three times and they get nine points off those turnovers, you have a very small chance of beating a team like this,” Petersen said. “… Those turnovers really hurt us bad.”
After the pick-six, the Utes (8-1, 5-1) mounted long fourth-quarter TD drives of 82 and 84 yards to pull in front. Dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley capped the first drive by scrambling inside the right pylon for a 1-yard TD, and Zack Moss finished the second drive by plowing in for a 2-yard score to give Utah a 33-21 lead with 4:52 to play.
Washington scored a late TD to make it a one-possession game with 1:01 remaining, but the Utes recovered the ensuing onside kick to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive and deliver another crushing blow to the Huskies.
“The kids are playing hard, I know that,” Petersen said. “We’re not playing well enough late in the game, for sure. It’s not just going to be about toughness and (being) physical. You’ve gotta execute as well.”
Washington has already matched its loss total from last year’s 10-4 campaign. And after losing just five Pac-12 games combined over the previous three seasons, the Huskies have already lost four conference games this year. Three of their losses have come by a combined 10 points.
“We’re just going to keep working,” Petersen said. “We’re not going to feel sorry for ourself. It is what it is. We played two really good back-to-back teams and we didn’t make enough plays.”
Washington got off to a strong start, scoring TDs on two of its first three possessions. The second came on a 34-yard TD pass from Eason to tight end Hunter Bryant, which gave the Huskies a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Near the midway point of the third, the quarterback-tight end duo connected for another score. Eason hit Bryant on a crossing route and the former Eastside Catholic High School star rumbled down the right sideline for a 40-yard TD that stretched Washington’s lead to 21-13.
Bryant finished with six catches for 105 yards and two TDs.
The Huskies then recovered a pair of fumbles on back-to-back Utah drives, but Washington’s offense couldn’t capitalize. Shortly after the second fumble recovery, Eason threw the pick-six that helped ignite the Utes’ rally. Eason finished 29-of-52 passing for 316 yards, four TDs and two interceptions.
“We’ve just got to play four quarters,” Eason said. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the problem is, but we’ve got to fix it. Part of that’s on me being smart with the ball in some situations. I’ll take the blame there, move on and learn from it.”
As the Huskies’ offense stumbled in the second half against Utah’s stingy defense, the Utes surged in front with back-to-back long TD drives.
The first of those two lengthy scoring marches was keyed by a 41-yard completion from Huntley to Jaylen Dixon on third-and-12. The second was extended by a pivotal 28-yard third-down sliding catch by Utah receiver Samson Nacua — the older brother of Washington receiver Puka Nacua.
Huntley completed 19 of 24 passes for 284 yards, one TD and no interceptions. Moss, the all-time leading rusher in Utah program history, ran for 100 yards and one TD on 27 carries.
“You’ve gotta give a lot of credit to Huntley and their wide receivers,” Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said. “They made way more plays (than us) in the second half. … That was really the difference.”
After back-to-back losses, the Huskies look to bounce back at Oregon State next Friday night.
“We’re going to learn a lot of hard lessons from these losses that we’re taking right now in these tight moments late in the games,” Lake said.
“We know we’re right there. … But right now, we’re learning some tough, hard lessons and it’s going to harden us up and hopefully make us better.”
Washington freshman receiver Puka Nacua was sidelined with a broken foot that he suffered during practice this week. Petersen said Nacua underwent surgery and likely will be out for about the next four to five weeks. Nacua had seen an increased role in the Huskies’ previous two games, totaling six catches for 140 yards and a TD.