Washington cornerback Elijah Molden never had a doubt the retooled Huskies defense, which returned just two starters, would pick up right where it left off last season when it led the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed.
However, defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake wasn’t entirely sure heading into Saturday’s season-opening 47-14 victory over Eastern Washington.
“We felt very, very confident the way we’ve been practicing,” Lake said. “We felt like the guys had been practicing hard. Our run fits were good. Our pass fits were good. There wasn’t a lot of bust with our coverages, but you never know until it’s real football and you’re under the lights.
“So it was awesome for those guys to produce out there.”
Afterward, Lake bounced around the Husky Stadium field exchanging congratulatory hugs with nearly everyone within reach.
There was a lot for UW to celebrate.
The Huskies received impressive performances from its two returning starters Myles Bryant and Benning Potoa’e.
Bryant, a senior safety, finished with a team-high eight tackles while Potoa’e, a senior who switched from outside linebacker to defensive end, racked up two sacks as a reserve.
Washington also had an impressive starting debut from senior linebacker Kyler Manu, who had seven tackles.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman linebacker MJ Tafisi tallied five stops, including a crushing hit that drew raves from the UW coaching staff and players.
“People just step up,” Molden said when asked how leaders emerge on a defensive unit that lost five players taken in the 2019 NFL draft. “Most of the time it’s the older guys, people who know the program and are able to spot ebbs and flows in our energy.
“But I knew all along since spring ball that we had this in us. We’ve been practicing with the same group of guys, and we knew what we were capable of. We’re going against a really good offense in practice. It was great to showcase, and it was a lot of fun.”
Lake began pulling the defensive starters late in the third quarter after Washington took a 42-7 lead.
At that point, the Huskies had held the Eagles to just 35 rushing yards and 164 passing, which included a 64-yarder touchdown reception in which EWU receiver Andrew Boston broke tackles by cornerback Keith Taylor and safety Cameron Williams.
“There’s a couple of things that Eastern got us on,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “I thought for the most part (the defense) was good. I thought maybe what showed up where we weren’t consistent was the tackling. It’s got to be a little bit cleaner.”
Still, the Huskies tallied four sacks (one each from Ryan Bowman and Josiah Bronson) while holding EWU quarterback Eric Barriere to 211 yards on 21-for-35 passing.
Washington forced six punts and allowed Eastern into the red zone just three times on 12 possessions.
Perhaps fittingly, the UW capped its outing with a safety from outside linebacker Laiatu Latu, who tackled running back Isaiah Lewis in the end zone with 2:28 left.
Latu was one of 11 UW true freshmen who made their collegiate debut, including nine on defense.
“Those guys were ready,” Lake said. “They had a really good training camp. … It was good to get those freshmen in there. It was nice. They got their feet wet and now I can call them veterans. They’re not rookies anymore.”
Lake’s only lament was Washington not creating a turnover. The Huskies nearly had an interception and possibly a pick-six, however redshirt freshman cornerback Dominique Hampton had a pass slip through his hands.
“Our job is to score and get the ball back so at least we scored with that safety,” Lake said. “But for sure, we want to get more interceptions especially that one that was just made for Dom in the flat, which really could have been a pick-six if he would have caught that clean.
“Overall for so many new guys being in starting roles, for us to not make that many mistakes our whole coaching staff is very pleased with that.”