Failures on third down, as was the case in the Apple Cup, did in Washington Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl aginst Boise State, which came up clutch in a 28-26 triumph.
Washington lost its final two games of 2012 by a total of five points. Why does it feel like 50?
Partly because for the third consecutive season, the Huskies finished the season 7-6, failing to show tangible progress from the great mediocre middle of college football. But the angst for Huskies fans in losing the final two games mostly is over blowing one to a terrible team and scuffing the other to a good team clearly beatable.
Each time, Washington had leads late in the fourth quarter. Each time, it found a way to lose. Each time, a missed field goal sucked up the easiest criticism, but the larger backstory was the failure of the offense to turn flashes of excellence into a knockout punch.
Sophomore Bishop Sankey rushed for a school bowl-record 205 yards and added 74 in receptions. He was named MVP, the first time in the 22-year history of the Las Vegas Bowl that a player from the losing team was so honored. Yet Boise State won, 28-26, by making fewer mistakes than the Huskies.
At the end of the third quarter, numerous Huskies on the field and sidelines held up a hand showing four fingers, a symbol of determination to win the final period. Didn’t work. The senior-light Huskies still flailed about, unable to find often enough the right play at the right time, especially on third down on offense and defense.
“Two, three, four plays here and there, and we’re talking about 9-4 instead 7-6,” said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, referring as well to the 31-28 OT loss to Washington State in the Apple Cup. “It’s disappointing. The end result is winning and losing.
“How do we take the next step? How do we get over the hump? We have to grow up. We’ve changed personalities; we have a young and talented defensive team. “We have to find a way (on offense) to finish games.”
Neither terrible nor triumphal, the Huskies aside from Sankey mostly muddled. And even Sankey lost a fumble on the first drive that Boise State turned into a field goal. The key-play failures resulted in weak outcomes on the final three possessions in the fourth quarter: Missed field goal, made field goal, interception.
Trailing 25-23 early in the final period, kicker Travis Coons, a goat in the Apple Cup, again missed an easy field goal. Although he redeemed himself a bit at the 4:09 mark with a 38-yarder to give UW a 26-25 lead, his subsequent line-drive kickoff gave the Broncos’ Shane Williams-Rhodes room for a 47-yard return, which set up Boise State kicker Michael Frisina for what proved to be the game-winning field goal of 27 yards with 1:16 left.
The Huskies had one more shot, starting with linebacker Shaq Thompson doing well in his first chance at a kickoff return, setting up Washington at its 36-yard line, needing only about 35 yards for another Coons try. But after crossing midfield, quarterback Keith Price looked too long for his primary receiver, Kasen Williams, and was picked off in the final minute, the last mistake in another game of mixed messages.
A year after outshining Baylor superstar Robert Griffin III in the Alamo Bowl, Price was a shadow from that game, completing 20 of 39 passes for 242 yards, throwing for one touchdown a rushing seven yards for another in which he was hit four times. In fact, Price was hit many times by a tough Broncos defense, seemingly during or after most of his passes, and including four sacks.
But even though Price’s misses were often way off, he was hampered again by the young Washington line, whose mediocre pass-blocking was again exposed, and also had to compensate for an injury to guard Dexter Charles. But Boise State was playing without its premier rusher, sophomore defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who was sent home Thursday for a violation of team rules. Lawrence would have made a bad day worse for Price.
This time, Price was outshone by the opposing QB, Joe Southwick, who completed 26 of 38 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns. He also killed the Washington defense with scrambles from the pocket, finishing with 39 yards in 11 carries, several resulting in third-down conversions. Boise State converted 9 of 21 chances on third and fourth downs.
“Third-down conversions were really the story,” Sarkisian said. “That was the toughest part, our inability to rush the passer. It was a story for us all season, and it raised its ugly head again.”
Said senior safety Justin Glenn: “We’d have (receivers) covered, but we didn’t spy on (Southwick), and he would just get out. We’d have to come off coverage, but by that time he was 10 yards down the field.”
Although it remains difficult for some to give Boise State enough credit because it is dominant in a tepid Mountain West Conference, it is the winningest team in college football in the 21st century, with seven seasons in a row of at least 10 wins. The Broncos have gone bowling for 13 of the past 14 seasons, and have won their past three postseason games, all in the Vegas bowl, with Washington joining Utah an Arizona State as victims from the Pac-12 Conference.
The Huskies did well to rally from an 18-3 deficit 20 minutes into the game, and they had the ball on the final possession with a chance to win. But after four seasons under Sarkisian, they still have yet to remedy consistently the absence of a killer instinct.
They have a little more than eight months to develop one for the rematch Aug. 31 at the new old digs in Montlake.