Facing second-and-three at the 11-yard line, Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan called what’s normally a conservative play and was just hoping for a short run up the middle to move the chains.
Salvon Ahmed gave the Huskies so much more.
“He’s a game changer,” Hamdan said. “He’s a guy that if you make a small mistake, fit the wrong gap or take a bad angle, then he can break a game wide open.”
After taking a deep handoff, the 5-foot-11 and 195-pound running back skipped to his right and darted left to elude a tackle from a USC defender, who fell to the ground while grasping at a ghost.
Washington right guard Jaxson Kirkland bulldozed USC nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu out of the way to open a gaping hole in the middle of the line for Ahmed.
After one last key block from receiver Andre Baccellia, who shielded cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart on the outside, Ahmed raced past free safety Isaiah Pola-Mao at the 20 with nothing but green turf in front of him.
“As soon as I saw him get that crease, I knew he was gone,” UW tight end Hunter Bryant said. “He’s one of the fast players in the country, so anytime he gets into open space it’s good for us.”
That’s when the 66,975 fans at Husky Stadium collectively held their breath as No. 26 streaked along the sideline.
Ahmed, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds, looked up at the giant video screen above the end zone and spotted a USC defender closing in fast before turning on his blazing speed.
“I saw a guy getting close to me, and I was like ‘Oh man, I can not get caught,’” he said. “I won’t hear the end of this. Got to score. That’s what’s going through my head.”
Ahmed easily beat USC cornerback Chris Steele to the end zone for an 89-yard touchdown run that capped the scoring in No. 17 Washington’s 28-14 win.
It was the fifth longest run in UW history and a career day for Ahmed who tallied 153 rushing yards on 17 carries.
“The one run made it a career day,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “That was a game changer. To be able to get an 80-plus yard play in the run game – that doesn’t happen too often. When you have explosives in the run game (that) go for touchdowns, that is what you want to do.”
Ahmed flashed big-play potential as a freshman when he scampered 58 yards for a touchdown against Oregon in 2017. The next year, he sprinted 59 yards into the end zone against Oregon State.
But aside from a 42-yard run, in which he was caught from behind, Ahmed had been held in check before Saturday.
A week ago, a leg injury kept him from making the trip to BYU. He went home to Kirkland and watched UW’s 45-19 win with his family as backups Sean McGrew and Richard Newton ran for 110 and 80 yards, respectively.
“This is the game that I love and the game that I put a lot of my soul into, but there’s no doubt that whole running back room can go out there and do whatever they want,” Ahmed said. “We have a great offensive and we got great players.
“It was obviously hard to watch that game, but I was proud of the team win. I knew those guys were going to go out there and handle business.”
With Ahmed back on the field, Washington could afford a subdued performance from quarterback Jacob Eason, who had 180 yards on 16-of-26 passing.
“Having Salvon back there is always great,” Eason said. “He played really well. He made some explosive plays, and you see what he does with the ball in space. He’s definitely a threat to have in the backfield.”
Still, Ahmed needed to overcome a first-quarter gaffe when he fumbled at the goal line on a play in which Baccellia recovered the ball in the end zone for a score.
“That dude just kind of got under me,” Ahmed said. “I had to flush it out. I have really great teammates that have my back and just told me to keep going. I needed my team in that moment. I just kept pushing and kind of forgot about it.”
Washington averaged 5.5 yards per rushing attempt and finished with 193 yards, but UW’s offense stalled at times and was 3 of 12 on third-down conversions.
“That’s just how the run game is sometimes,” Ahmed said. “Every run is not going to be like that long one and you get lucky with big runs. As long as you’re getting 5 yards a pop, then you’re going to be able to win the game.
“We stayed with it and we caught them with a big one.”