The 35-point blowout was a statement by a defense that is attempting to be the Pac-12’s best for the second straight year.
In spring-practice drills and fall football training camp, college quarterbacks across the country wear designated jerseys – a signal to defensive teammates that they’re not supposed to get hit.
But there was little protection for Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano on Saturday at Husky Stadium.
As much as Washington’s 48-13 rout was a reminder of how explosive the Huskies are when John Ross III is healthy, the 35-point blowout was also a statement by a defense that is attempting to be the Pac-12’s best for the second straight year.
“We practice our style of tackling, but hitting is something that comes from inside you,” junior linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. “We really don’t try to hit too much in practice. Coach (Chris Petersen) definitely doesn’t like that because people get hurt and it’s not always the best thing to do.
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“But when you get a chance to hit somebody, you let it loose. … And in the first game – since quarterbacks aren’t used to getting hit — maybe they feel it a little bit more. I think that’s what you saw out there today.”
Under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Drew Hehringer, the Scarlet Knights began the opener with a hurry-up offense and a conservative run-heavy attack on the first two series.
The Huskies stuffed both drives, including a momentum-turning swing on the fifth play.
Laviano rolled right on third and 4, but was stopped two yards short of the first down by Bierria who drilled him in the ribs and forced a fumble. Psalm Wooching made the recovery at the Rutgers 35 and soon after UW led 10-0.
“Some times I’m more of a just tackle a guy, but once you take the chains off we’re trying to impose our will on people,” said Bierria, who finished with a game-high 12 tackles. “I didn’t know he fumbled, but I (knew) I got him.”
Defensive tackles Elijah Qualls and Vita Vea also got to Laviano, registering first-quarter sacks that rendered Rutgers ineffective early.
On the third series, Vea forced Laviano into a fumble that was picked up by linebacker Azeem Victor (11 tackles), but the play was nullified because of a defensive penalty.
Still, the Huskies sacked Laviano three times and limited him to 168 yards on 24-of-40 passing.
“We didn’t protect the quarterback well, but a lot of that had to do with them,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “That’s one of the best defensive lines we’ll face this season.”
Washington held Rutgers to 117 yards and 2.8 yards per play when the Huskies led 34-3 at halftime.
Backup free safety Brandon Beaver returned an interception 50 yards to the Rutgers 4 in the third quarter, setting up the Huskies’ last score.
Even though the Knights finished with 304 yards, they had most of their success in the fourth quarter when they tallied 10 points against a mix of UW reserves.
“This group is special and I’m just glad that we showed up,” said senior cornerback Kevin King who had seven tackles, including two for loss. “It wasn’t a matter of proving that we’re legit, but it’s about putting last year behind us and coming out and doing it on this stage.”
These Huskies don’t want to entirely forget about 2015, when they led the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed, but they want to add to a reputation as one of the top defenses in college football.
At the center of that effort is Bierria, who is often overlooked on a defense that features All-American candidates Budda Baker and Sidney Jones in the secondary, Victor at linebacker and three all-conference candidates (Qualls, Vea and Greg Gaines) on the defensive line.
“A lot of things have been stopping me from really knocking people out how I want to,” Bierria said. “But it’s something that I’m getting back to.
“On a defense like this, there’s a lot of competition to make the play and get the tackle because everybody is flying to the ball. We like to joke that you have to be greedy and a little stingy out there.”