The Utes face a unique challenge when they travel to Seattle on Saturday. Unlike most games, Utah will not be the best defensive team on the field, at least statistically. The Huskies rank as the Pac-12’s top overall defense and they are playing perhaps their best football of the season.
The Huskies lost five starters off last year’s defense, including NFL draft picks Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, Hau’oli Kikaha and John Timu. Despite the personnel losses, the Huskies lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense allowing only 16.9 points per game. Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has transformed this defense in just a year, improving their scoring defense 32% from 24.8 points per game a year ago.
The Washington defense plays a hard hitting, aggressive style of defense. For the Husky faithful, the return of an intimidating defense is a welcome sight, as it was the hallmark of Washington teams in the 90's that regularly competed for Rose Bowls. Here's a look at a few of the standout players.
The Washington defense is anchored by a stout defensive front led by sophomore nose tackle Elijah Qualls. At 6-1, 311 lbs, Qualls is a big space eater who has stepped in nicely this year to fill the void (figuratively and literally) left by Danny Shelton. His status is listed as week to week after he suffered an injury in last week's game against Arizona. Qualls will be an important piece in stopping Devontae Booker, so I'd expect him to play, but he pretty clearly won't be at 100% which is a break for Utah center Hiva Litui, who will be filling in for Siaosi Aiono. Freshman Greg Gaines and Vita Vea are also big space eating bodies that will rotate in. Senior defensive tackle Taniela Tupou will compliment Qualls on the interior and at defensive end, 6-2 252 lb. junior, Joe Mathis will hold the edge.
Senior Travis Feeney starts at the pass rushing Buck linebacker position for the Huskies. Feeney leads the Pac-12 in sacks with 6.5 and is third with 13 tackles for a loss. He is coming off a week in which he earned Pac-12 defensive player of the week, recording 11 tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Sophomores Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria are big time hitters who set the tone as middle linebackers. Victor in particular has really emerged as an enforcer this season for the Huskies. Senior linebacker Cory Littleton provides a steady veteran presence to the linebacking group.
The Husky secondary is led by do-it-all sophomore free safety Budda Baker. The playmaking safety is all over the field for the Huskies with 35 tackles, two interceptions, four pass break ups and an punt block this season. Junior Kevin King and sophomore Sidney Jones are the starting cornerbacks. both are bigger corners, standing over six feet. The Huskies have a young emerging secondary that can force turnovers, with Baker, King and Jones joining Darren Gardenhire with at least two interceptions a piece. They all have the speed to stay with the Utah receivers and good ball skills, so Wilson will need to be smart when throwing.
Washington has shown it is able to stop the best offenses in the Pac-12. In five conference games this year against the Pac-12's five best scoring offenses, California, USC, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona, the Huskies allowed an average of 20.4 points per game. Those same opponents have averaged 36.1 points per game against their other Pac-12 opponents this year. On Saturday the Huskies will be tasked with stopping Utah, the Pac-12’s eighth rated offense.
Washington has the best rated red zone defense in the Pac-12 and hold opponents to a conference best 4.8 yards per play. Against the run, Washington has been good, allowing 3.2 yards per rush. The only game where they glaringly struggled was on the road against USC, where they allowed 4.87 yards a rush. As has been opponent’s strategy all year against the Utes, the Huskies will key in on stopping Booker. Washington has the talent to disrupt Utah's running game, making the play of Travis Wilson all the more important.
In much the same way Utah began the season with a flurry of forced turnovers, snagging 13 interceptions in their first six games, Washington has picked up on their turnovers recently. The Huskies have 11 interceptions this year, four in the past two games. With rain in the forecast for Saturday (surprise!) Utah will need to make sure to hold onto the ball. As we all saw against USC, turnovers will doom the Utes. The Utah offense is not built to come from behind and needs to keep Washington from getting easy scores on turnovers.
On paper this game looks like it will be a defensive struggle. Both offenses have had moments, but are largely inconsistent. The game will come down to which quarterback is more efficient and better protects the ball. The freshman Browning at home or Wilson, the senior on the road? It is likely the first team to score 20 points will leave Husky Stadium the winner on Saturday night.