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Seattle • No. 13 Utah is just where it wants to be, said Kyle Whittingham: first place in the Pac-12 South, alive in the College Football Playoff race, having beaten Washington for the first time in school history.
That, despite oftentimes finding itself in a position where it would rather not be.
Saturday night's opponents combined for seven turnovers and 125 penalty yards, but Utah was clean when it counted, closing out a 34-23 victory on the backs of a relentless Devontae Booker and a seemingly omnipresent Gionni Paul.
"They showed a lot of resiliency and toughness down the stretch," Whittingham said a recurring theme for 8-1 Utah, as is its reliance on Booker and Paul.
Booker carried 34 times for 150 yards and Paul had a fumble return for a touchdown, an interception and two sacks. And as preached by defensive coordinator John Pease a UW defensive line coach the last time Utah visited Husky Stadium, in 1979 Utah forced four turnovers and converted one into points.
Four and a score, Pease likes to say.
"If you get four takeaways and a score off one of them, directly, you're not going to lose too many football games," Whittingham echoed. Utah also survived three of its own turnovers, which the Huskies turned into just three points.
It was still in doubt, though. Utah's offense had been long dormant after a 24-point outburst in the second quarter, and Washington which was previously 8-0 against Utah capped an eight-play, 51-yard drive with a 10-yard rushing score from Myles Gaskin to close within four, 24-20, early in the third.
Then it became just 1, after a 49-yard field goal from Cameron Van Winkle.
And after Utah had driven 40 yards on seven plays on the ensuing drive, Travis Wilson's deep pass down the right sideline found the hands of Husky cornerback Sidney Jones, who returned it 33 yards.
But a pass interference call on Husky tight end Joshua Perkins negated a big gain across the middle, and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu followed the flag by dragging down true freshman quarterback Jake Browning.
The crowd never got over it, booing the refs for the remainder of the game, even if Browning and Perkins were later good sports.
"At the end of the day, if you are good enough you don't let the refs lose you a game," said Browning, whom the Utes held to one touchdown after he accounted for five scores last week agains Arizona. "We are not going to sit here and blame the refs."
But Utah seized control after the call. Booker and Wilson who rushed for 42 yards and his fifth and sixth touchdowns of the season carried it nine consecutive times on a 60-yard touchdown march, and Kylie Fitts' strip-sack of Jake Browning was recovered by Tu'ikolovatu to set up a 36-yard field goal from Andy Phillips that sealed it.
Of Booker, who broke the 1,000-yard barrier for a second straight season, Whittingham said: "He gets stronger as the game goes on. He'll take the ball as much as you want to feed him."
Utah had owed much of its 24-13 halftime advantage to the end of a two-game turnover drought, and specifically, to Paul.
First, Paul jumped a short slant from Browning and returned it 27 yards to the Washington 8, followed by consecutive 4-yard rushes from Booker for his 10th touchdown.
Later in the second quarter, with Utah leading 14-6, Paul was again Gionni on the spot after a Jared Norris hit forced Dwayne Washington to cough it up Paul rumbling 46 yards untouched for the score.
Paul now has three interceptions in nine games this season and seven in 17 as a Ute, and the fumble recovery was his third in 2015. He was credited with two sacks.
And it doesn't count as a turnover, but Utah's first score followed a fumble from Washington punter Korey Durkee.
Wilson slid for a first on a 4th-and-1 keeper after a hard sell to Booker and then kept it, twice cutting out of the reach of pursuing Huskies for a 4-yard rushing score.
Penalties cost both teams, as well.
Browning had marched the Huskies 80 yards on their first drive only to have a short touchdown pass to Jaydon Mickens negated by an offensive pass interference call on the rub. Utah sophomore Lowell Lotulelei sacked Browning on the next play, and UW was forced to settle for three points, instead of seven.
On the ensuing drive for Utah, a holding penalty on Hiva Lutui led to first-and-20 and, ultimately, a 48-yard field goal miss from Phillips his first in eight tries.
Before Van Winkle's third field goal early in the fourth, a holding penalty negated a 23-yard rushing touchdown by Gaskin.
"It is crushing," said Huskies coach Chris Petersen. "That was huge. Having two touchdowns called back and then giving them a touchdown on offense, those are really hard to overcome, especially when you are playing someone that is really pretty good."
Utah also wasted a third first-half turnover a fumble forced by first-time starting safety Chase Hansen and recovered by Tu'ikolovatu when Wilson returned the favor by fumbling the next snap.
Washington outside linebacker Travis Feeney picked it up at the Utah 44, and the short field resulted in the second first-half field goal for Van Winkle, who hit from 42 and 39 yards.
The loss was the first for Petersen in three tries against Whittingham having previously beaten Utah twice while at the helm of Boise State.
"You give yourself no chance," against a team like Utah, Petersen said, with "basically five turnovers."
Hansen recorded a game-high 11 tackles in his first start but appeared to injure his leg on the game's final play. Whittingham said Hansen was being X-rayed, but that "it didn't look good."
Wilson wasn't always at his best. He finished 12 of 25 for 155 yards, and might've had two interceptions if linebacker Azeem Victor didn't bail him out by dropping a short pass. For whatever reason, he has failed to see a linebacker waiting in underneath coverage a few times in the last few games. But Whittingham said he was pleased with Wilson's overall performance.
Browning at times looked at ease despite regular pressure from Utah's edge rushers, stepping up into the free space in front of him. But Utah, without junior defensive end Hunter Dimick and sophomore Filipo Mokofisi, still finished with five sacks.
The Utes travel to Tucson to face Arizona on Saturday, before returning to Salt Lake City to host a UCLA team that has won three straight.