On Saturday afternoon, #4 Washington (7-0, 4-0) will come into Rice-Eccles Stadium looking to continue their undefeated season. Now in their third season under Chris Peterson, the Huskies received a lot of preseason hype. They have backed it up through the first half of the season, systematically destroying the majority of their opponents with scores like 44-6 (Stanford), 70-21 (Oregon), and 41-17 (Oregon State). Washington is winning their games by an average of 33.8 points per game. A big reason for that is the Husky defense.
Washington has the best scoring defense in the Pac-12 and is a top 10 defense in the country, ranking sixth in the nation in scoring defense. They allow only 14.6 points per game and 318 yards a game in total offense. They are stingy to say the least.
They are aggressive, leading the Pac-12 with 25 sacks and lead the conference in fumbles forced, with 14 in just 7 games, or 2 per game. This could be a dangerous area for Utah, who leads the conference in fumbles (22) and fumbles lost (9). Through the air, the Washington defense hasn’t wreaked as much havoc, but are still dangerous, with 7 interceptions on the season.
Against the run, Washington has been tough, allowing only 3.72 yards per carry and allowing 8 touchdowns on the ground. The good news is other Pac-12 teams have had success rushing the ball against the Huskies this season. Arizona did the most damage, running for 308 yards and 3 touchdowns, while averaging 7.16 yards per carry in the closest game Washington has played this year. Last week, Oregon State ran for 5.9 yards per carry, though they were never really in the game. With Utah’s strength on offense being the run game, Utah should be able to find some room to run, though it won’t be near as much as the Bruins allowed.
Against the pass, Washington is very good, allowing only 173.1 yards per game. As mentioned the Huskies have picked off opposing quarterbacks 7 times and have only allowed 5 passing touchdowns. Troy Williams will be going up against his former teammates, but needs to be sure to play within himself, as the Husky defense will make him pay for any mistakes.
On the defensive line, the Huskies have some large men lining up, in Vita Vea (6-5, 332 lbs.), Greg Gaines (6-2, 318 lbs.) and Elijah Qualls (6-1, 321 lbs.) Vea and Gaines can both get into the backfield with 3.5 sacks each and Qualls is great at holding the point of attack, and also has 2 sacks this season. With a combined weight of almost 1,000 lbs., that is a lot of mass for the offensive line to move, and the Washington defensive line does a great job of setting the the line of scrimmage and letting their athletic linebackers fly to the ball.
The Husky linebackers are the most intimidating part of Washington’s defense. The Huskies have guys like Azeem Victor (6-3, 230 lbs.) Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 221 lbs.) and Joe Mathis (6-2, 255 lbs.) and Psalm Wooching (6-4, 231 lbs.) making plays all over the field. Victor and Bierria are hard hitters, and lead the team in tackles, Victor with 48 and Bierria with 40. Mathis leads the team in sacks, often lining up as a defensive end type player, with 5. Mathis is struggling with a foot injury currently, and while the staff is hopeful he will return this season, it probably won’t be against the Utes. In his place, junior Connor O’Brien (6-3, 232 lbs.) played well last week recording a sack. Redshirt freshman Benning Potoa’e will see some snaps as well.
In the secondary, junior Sidney Jones (6-0, 181 lbs.) is one of the best corners in college football. Opposite him, senior Kevin King (6-3, 192 lbs.) has 5 pass breakups and an interception. At safety Budda Baker (5-10, 192 lbs.) is a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist with blazing speed and 31 tackles, a forced fumble and interception. JoJo McIntosh (6-1, 209 lbs.) is the other safety, with 29 tackles and 2 forced fumbles. This is a highly skilled, veteran group that will make it tough on their former teammate to throw against.
This is definitely the best defense Utah will have faced this season, or will face the remainder of the season. There is not much of a weakness, as Washington is pretty balanced from the defensive front back to the secondary. The only advantage Utah might have is in the trenches, where the Utah offensive line has really come together in the past few games, particularly in run blocking. Utah will need another big game out of the offensive line to create gaps for Joe Williams to run through. Washington will make it difficult to pass, so it is imperative Utah finds a way to score on the ground similar to last week.