A week ago, there was a serious discussion about Washington’s defense and the potential for a late-season slide.
By Monday, the Huskies were the No. 5 defense in college football with an outside shot at reaching a New Year’s Six bowl game.
What changed? UW (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) was able to get four turnovers against one of the nation’s most prolific offenses in a 41-14 win over Washington State in The Apple Cup last Saturday at Husky Stadium.
“We knew that was going to be the key to the game. It has been every year,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “These guys are good at possessing the ball, so if we don’t get turnovers, that causes all kinds of problems for us. One of the reasons we’ve had some success is we have gotten some turnovers.
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“And we didn’t turn it over on a wet night. The combination of those two things was really good.”
UW’s defense was under a microscope for how it played the last two weeks.
The Huskies entered the Apple Cup having allowed 30 points in back-to-back games after not allowing 30 in a contest since 2015 when they played Southern Mississippi in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Stanford scored 30 by winning third down and keeping the UW defense on the field for long stretches. Utah tried a similar approach a week later. The Huskies went 1-1 in those games.
WSU, which broke the 30-point mark in eight games this season, never found its footing. The Cougars were second nationally in time of possession yet the Huskies controlled the clock. Although WSU was 6 of 13 on third down, it was 1 of 5 on plays longer than 5 yards.
And one of Luke Falk’s three interceptions came on third down. The other two came on downs longer than 10 yards.
Falk was frequently under pressure which forced him into mistakes. The first came when safety Jojo McIntosh grabbed an interception late in the opening quarter.
UW’s ability to drop back and force Falk into making mistakes also played a role in neutralizing WSU’s bigger receivers.
Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who is 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, used his size to get five catches and 130 yards. Utah’s Raelon Singleton, who is 6-2 and 212 pounds, picked up five receptions for 81 yards and two touchdowns.
Cougars receiver Tavares Martin, who is 6-1 and 183 pounds, had five catches for 62 yards. Isaiah Johnson-Mack, who is 6-3, caught three balls for 25 yards.
“We knew we had to play physical,” McIntosh said. “We knew Washington State is watching our tape knowing how physical we are. For a lot of the [drop-back passes] they had, they knew we were coming. ... Falk felt the pressure from the three guys up front.
“He was throwing it up and we just capitalized.”
Getting the turnovers wasn’t enough. UW was able to parlay those mistakes into something significant.
McIntosh’ interception didn’t lead to a score but Keishawn Bierria’s forced fumble set up Jake Browning’s 1-yard touchdown run for a 14-0 lead with 12:34 left in the second quarter.
Falk and the Cougars were in Huskies’ territory until Ezekiel Turner picked off a pass at the UW 14 for a 41-yard return near the end of the first half.
UW’s third interception, this time from Ben Burr-Kirven, led to Myles Gaskin scoring on a 2-yard run for a 34-0 lead with 6:06 left in the third quarter.
“They just executed. When you have four turnovers it is hard to win a football game,” Falk said. “We just went out there, they executed and we didn’t. If we got any points on the board in the first half, maybe the momentum would have switched. ... It is disappointing, but they played hard, and credit to them.”
UW’s defense has been among the best in college football throughout the season. The Huskies, at one point, were the nation’s No. 1 defense.
Ranked third against the run, sixth in points allowed and 19th versus the pass, the only complaint about the UW defense was its lack of turnovers.
A year ago, the Huskies led the nation with 33 turnovers as they reached the College Football Playoff. This year, they’re 33rd with 21 turnovers.
“The last few games we haven’t been able to cause as many turnovers, so we made that a priority this week,” Bierria said. “We focused on putting our head on the ball, punching the ball out, hustling to the ball and making sure we are all around the ball all of the time.
“We’ve put the ball on the ground a lot and just haven’t been able to scoop those ones up, but today guys focused a little bit more.”
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark