SEATTLE — The IPAs and Petite Sirahs flowed all day from the tailgating boats docked on Lake Washington, setting the tone for the biggest party seen around here in decades. And when the purple-clad faithful docked their boats and streamed into Husky Stadium on Saturday afternoon, they released a thunderclap roar just before kickoff. The public address announcer revealed to the masses that Pittsburgh had upset No. 2 Clemson, meaning the No. 4 Huskies appeared destined to further lodge themselves in the highest echelon of college football.
For years, the idyllic surroundings at Husky Stadium earned it the reputation as the best setting in football. And in Chris Petersen’s third season here, the 9–0 Huskies had begun to earn a similarly lofty aura for the action on the field.
But when the purple-clad masses returned to their yachts after Washington’s sloppy and uninspired 26–13 loss to No. 20 USC (7–3, 5–2) they could only drown their sorrows as they head into the uncomfortable unknown. The party ended abruptly, and Washington fans may need a few drinks over the next few weeks to calm their nerves.
Now the Huskies need to spend their final two regular season games—Arizona State at home and at Washington State—auditioning for the College Football Playoff selection committee and hoping for a strong opponent if they advance to the Pac-12 title game. (Washington State is the only Pac-12 team unbeaten in conference play, headed into its matchup with Cal Saturday).
While Washington’s loss won’t kill its playoff chances, it certainly adds an element of doubt and leaves the Huskies with little wiggle room. The playoff was an uncomfortable topic for Washington players in the postgame, as quarterback Jake Browning rolled his eyes when asked about it a second time.
"As far as the national championship stuff and all the playoff, you start worrying about that too much and stuff like this happens. I don’t think we were focused on that by any means, we were ready to play," he said. "You see people lose all the time. I don’t even know what the rankings mean with four weeks left in the season. Obviously anything can happen."
The Saturday upsets leave Washington and Clemson as fascinating test cases for playoff committee. Each is still favored to win its league and finish the season with one loss. They both should be in good shape to reach the playoff if they do so, but much of that will hinge on the committee sticking to its stated mantra of rewarding conference champions. There are a pair of intriguing teams looming that could end the season with one defeat. Could a one-loss Louisville team beat out a one-loss Pac-12 champion for a playoff spot? Could a one-loss Big Ten team beat out a one-loss ACC or Pac-12 champ? And what if a league champion has two losses? Or if Washington or Clemson lose in the conference title game?
The first two years of the playoff have been relatively controversy free, especially after Ohio State won the title after edging out Baylor and TCU in the first year. But this year promises to be thornier, and this Washington loss—including the tenor of it—further muddles the picture.
USC won because it had a better quarterback, as Sam Darnold (23 of 33 for 287 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions) outplayed Washington’s Heisman candidate Browning (17 of 36 for 259 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions). “We just capitalized as a defense,” said USC’s junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who had both the Trojans’ interceptions Saturday night. “We wanted to make sure he was off his timing.”
The Huskies looked overmatched at times and failed to pressure Darnold. Their performance Saturday will leave fans wondering, "If Alabama beat USC 52–6, what would it do to the Huskies?" USC finished with 400 total yards, as injuries to Washington's defense appear to be making the Huskies increasingly vulnerable. Washington lost star linebacker Azeem Victor on Saturday to what appeared to be a serious leg injury, another huge blow to the Huskies defense. Their pass rush has already been significantly hindered since senior defensive end Joe Mathis went out with a foot injury in late October. Washington had famously been able to pressure the quarterback without blitzing earlier in the season, including the blowout of Stanford, but hasn't been able to do that consistently without Mathis.
USC came out the more poised team, as Darnold, a 6’4” redshirt freshman, flashed the polish, accuracy and athleticism that projects him as a future Heisman Trophy candidate. Amid a raucous environment, Darnold showed a preternatural calm. USC converted four of five third downs in the first half, and the one it didn’t was a drop by tight end Tyler Petite in the first quarter.
No play summarized Darnold’s presence more than the 13-yard touchdown pass to Darreus Rogers in the second quarter. Darnold hung in the pocket for what seemed to be an entire election cycle before Rogers shook loose in the back of the end zone. Darnold threw a laser to find him there. As the grandson of the actor who once played the Marlboro Man, Darnold’s confidence permeates as if he’s fresh off a Hollywood set.
“To play that game at this age in that atmosphere, unbelievable” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “He’s just a poised guy, no deer in the headlights.”
The quarterback led USC on a nine-play, 82-yard drive in less than two minutes to put the Trojans up 17–6 with 28 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The most impressive play on that drive came on a third-and-seven from the USC 21 when he hit Rogers on a crossing pattern, squeezing the ball into a tiny window amid blanket coverage. Darnold has the look, the genes (his grandfather also played on USC’s Final Four basketball team in 1954) and the talent to become the Trojans’ next golden boy quarterback.
While the future is bright for Darnold, he played the role of the spoiler on Saturday. He clinched the game with an eight-yard lob to Daniel Imatorbhebhe on a third-and-goal early in the fourth quarter, lofting a perfect ball over linebacker DJ Beavers yet giving Imatorbhebhe just enough room to leap and get a foot down in bounds. The only question remaining about Darnold is how USC didn’t possibly start him at the beginning of the season. While he certainly wouldn’t have made that much of a difference against Alabama, he could have potentially spared the Trojans their loss at Stanford.
In the waning minutes, Husky fans streamed out of the stadium and into the great unknown. They jumped back on their yachts and cracked an IPA to drown their sorrows and theorize how the next few weeks could play out.
As the potential one-loss conference champions pile up, the job of the playoff selection committee only becomes more difficult. And the Huskies face plant Saturday against a three-loss USC team opens the door for some chaos in December.