In the lead-up to Washington’s showdown with USC, the Huskies psyched themselves up by watching some boxing videos on Friday night. Coach Chris Petersen, as always, had a method to his madness.
“Coach Pete just said, ‘We’re going to take some hits, but we’re going to swing right back,’’’ said linebacker Kyler Manu. “That was our statement. Yeah, you’re going to get a couple of plays on us, but we’re not going to shy away at all.”
As far as statements go, that one was pithy and to the point — and turned out to be pivotal in the Huskies’ 28-14 victory over the Trojans at Husky Stadium.
It’s easy to point out a litany of mistakes by the Huskies, who were always on the verge of blowing out a USC team playing its third-string quarterback — but never did.
Quarterback Jacob Eason, coming off a nationally celebrated gem against BYU, never quite got fully untracked. The Huskies had some obligatory red-zone issues, and made an ill-advised fair catch at the 5 that ultimately led to a USC touchdown. They had a defensive breakdown on a 60-yard run and another on a 44-yard TD pass from Matt Fink to Michael Pittman Jr. They had a mind-boggling fumble on a totally superfluous trickeration play that gave the Trojans new life in the fourth quarter when it had been all but extinguished.
Yet the story of this game is how they rose above those miscues, and how they surrounded themselves with some dazzling performances that kept them in a two-possession lead — shaky as it might have been — the entire second half.
Give much of the credit to the Husky defense, which was focused on shutting down the Trojans’ dynamic pass-catching duo of Pittman and Tyler Vaughns. Last week in a win over Utah, Pittman had 10 catches for 232 yards. Vaughns had been over 100 yards in two of USC’s four games. The Huskies held them to a combined 108 yards, a large amount coming on that one strike to Pittman.
“We ended up playing big,’’ UW defensive back Myles Bryant said.
And Bryant was high on that list, knocking down a fourth-and-goal pass into the end zone from the Husky 3 late in the fourth quarter. Had USC scored there, the Trojans would have been within a touchdown, with all the momentum, and nearly five minutes to play.
That Trojan opportunity, in turn, was thanks in large part to the botched razzle-dazzle earlier in the fourth quarter by UW. It was an apparent reverse to Aaron Fuller that was being set up with a couple of pitches, one of which was errant. USC could hardly believe its good fortune as it pounced on the ball.
“We certainly were trying to put the game away,’’ offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan said, before adding ruefully, “Wrong play into the wrong look.
“We’re going to be aggressive, and I want to make sure those guys know that, this offense knows it,” Hamdan added. “We’re not going to sit back. We’re going to be aggressive, and obviously sometimes that doesn’t go your way.”
Petersen expressed the same thought in slightly different words: “We wanted to be aggressive in that situation. We might have been a little too aggressive. That’s on me, it really is. But we really felt we wanted to go after them and score another.”
The Huskies, in heeding Petersen’s previous words at the pugilistic film session, would swing back twice more. The first was Bryant’s smothering defense on Fink’s would-be touchdown pass, the other an interception at Washington’s 1 by freshman Cameron Williams — his second of the game — that clinched the victory.
Certainly, Husky junior defensive back Elijah Molden deserves a mention as well for his part in a lightning strike of events in the third quarter that turned around the game, and maybe the Huskies’ season. With USC on the move, Molden had the first interception of his career as USC was driving toward a touchdown that would have cut Washington’s lead to 20-14.
And two plays later, running back Salvon Ahmed rumbled 89 yards for a score, a 14-point swing in less than a minute that Petersen termed, “The sequence of the game, right there.”
As has become typical in recent years, the Huskies had most of the answers to solve the Air Raid offense that USC features. Until the 60-yard run by Stephen Carr, the Huskies were holding USC to 116 total yards with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, who has masterminded the smothering of Mike Leach’s Air Raid in a succession of Apple Cup victories, noted that USC actually runs “a hybrid offense with Air Raid principles … This is like a cousin of the Air Raid.”
A prime difference is the running threat the Trojans offer, one they tried to exploit on Saturday. And on occasion succeeded in doing so. But this was a day when the Huskies swung back every time the Trojans connected. The Trojans’ playmakers threw some haymakers, but never landed a knockout punch.
“We definitely had some different wrinkles we haven’t put on tape where we wanted them to look up and go, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’” Lake said. “Just change the picture for the quarterback, change the picture for the wideouts, don’t give them an easy look they’ve been game-planning for all week long. Thankfully, it worked out.”
USC coach Clay Helton is hoping for a rematch with the Huskies this season. That, of course, would require each team winning their division of the Pac-12 and meeting in the title game. It’s actually not a totally unreasonable scenario.
“I told the guys in the locker room that they’re a football team that we can see again in December if you do your job,” Helton said.
If that happens, or even if it doesn’t, the Huskies hope to remain a team that can throw the last punch.
“We said, ‘We need to put on a show for these fans,’” Lake said. “And our guys made plays. Fourth-down stops, interceptions, those critical stops in those critical moments. Our playmakers had to show up.”
No rope-a-dope for the Huskies.