After his final act of inadvertent charity, Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Browning fell to his knees, slumped over and held his head near the Husky Stadium turf.
He had just committed his third turnover in this 30-24 loss to the California Golden Bears, scrambling desperately away from the ceaseless Cal pass rush that sacked him five times before forcing a bad throw into a bad spot.
Cal defensive back Damariay Drew picked it off with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining, the final giveaway from which the Huskies could not recover.
“It was like our 12th turnover of the game,” a terse Browning remarked afterward. “So we’re not going to play with anybody if we do that.”
Forgive the freshman for his exaggeration. The Huskies only turned the ball over five times Saturday. It just felt like a dozen.
Browning threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. True freshman receiver Isaiah Renfro lost a fumble. And tailback Dwayne Washington lost a fumble with the Huskies trailing 27-21 in the fourth quarter, driving at Cal’s 38-yard line with 10:53 remaining.
That was one play after Browning just barely overthrew Washington on a wheel route up the left sideline that might have netted a touchdown had the throw been on target.
“If the ball hits my hands, I’ve got to catch it, regardless,” Washington said. “It was slightly a bad ball, but it hit my hands. I should have caught the ball.”
All of which refutes Browning’s previous statement. In spite of themselves — they were outgained 481-259, Cal ran 37 more plays and possessed the ball nearly twice as long as UW — the Huskies actually did play with Cal on Saturday.
Even Cal’s 20-7 halftime lead wasn’t as bad as it might have been had the Huskies not stuffed the Bears on four consecutive plays from UW’s 1-yard line early in the second quarter — a situation in which the Huskies found themselves because of a fumble Browning lost at UW’s 30-yard line.
And after tailback Vic Enwere failed to score on fourth-and-goal, Browning turned the ball over again when his deep pass from UW’s 1-yard line, intended for Marvin Hall, was intercepted by Darius White and returned to the Huskies’ 23.
Even then, the Bears settled for a 41-yard field goal to take a 13-7 lead, the Huskies were still very much in the game despite turnovers on consecutive plays.
And they actually were able to move the ball on their ensuing possession … until they gave it away. Again. Browning completed a 17-yard pass to Renfro that moved UW into Cal territory, but Renfro fumbled it, Cal recovered, and Bears quarterback Jared Goff completed a 28-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Treggs seven plays later.
“Turning the ball over, missing that many tackles, getting beat that bad in time of possession — that’s a recipe for disaster,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said.
After Cal (4-0, 1-0 in Pac-12) took a 27-7 lead early in the third quarter with a four-play, 62-yard scoring drive sparked by Goff’s 52-yard completion to Kenny Lawler and capped by Lawler’s 8-yard touchdown catch, the Huskies looked done.
But they rallied. Freshman receiver Chico McClatcher, of Federal Way, ended a 10-play, 65-yard scoring drive with a 2-yard touchdown run on a fly sweep to cut it to 27-14. And even after Cal drove to UW’s 22-yard line with a second-and-7 on the ensuing possession, Huskies cornerback Sidney Jones forced and recovered a fumble by Enwere and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown, improbably trimming UW’s deficit to 27-21 with 2:19 still remaining in the third quarter.
After forcing Cal to punt and driving to the Bears’ 38-yard line, the Huskies had a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter before Washington’s fumble. Instead, Cal went the other way with it, and the teams traded field goals.
UW (2-2, 0-1 in Pac-12) did make one final stand. Cory Littleton sacked Goff on third-and-long with three minutes left in the game — they sacked him five times total — to force a Cal punt and give the Huskies one more chance to complete a comeback they probably didn’t really deserve.
But on a drive that began at UW’s 28-yard line, Browning was forced to scramble for a short gain and a short loss on first and second downs, then heaved that final interception in the general direction of receiver Jaydon Mickens.
It was a fitting way to end a game that Browning, who completed 17-of-28 passes for 152 yards, spent running for his life behind an offensive line that again started three freshmen.
“I’m sure there were some times he could have probably stepped up in there, and probably some times he couldn’t have,” Petersen said. “He was getting flushed a lot more than we had anticipated and I think we can be better at that.”
So there is plenty for UW to correct during its bye week, which precedes an Oct. 8 trip to Southern California.
“We’ve got to go back and tackle better,” Petersen said. “We’ve got to go back and pass-pro better. We’ve got to go back and set our feet and put the ball on our receivers. We’ve got to not fumble the ball. It’s all things that we can control, a lot of this stuff.”
Just not on Saturday.
THURSDAY, OCT. 8: UW (2-2, 0-1) at USC, 6 p.m., ESPN, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM