CORVALLIS, Ore. — The decisions made the difference.
And obviously the defense, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
It was fourth-and-one on Washington’s 39-yard line, with 4:23 remaining in the second quarter of the Huskies’ 19-7 win at Reser Stadium on Friday night. The Husky offense looked lethargic, with 107 total yards in five uninspiring and abbreviated drives. They had managed three punts, an interception and a 47-yard field goal. Jacob Eason was erratic, the running game was ineffective and the game plan almost certainly hadn’t called for a heaping helping of penalties and punts.
So UW coach Chris Petersen defied conventional logic. He decided to go for it.
And it worked.
After an Oregon State timeout, Eason stretched his gangly 6-foot-6 frame across the pylon for a successful sneak on fourth-and-one. He then hit tight end Hunter Bryant up the seam for a 40-yard gain. Three plays later, junior running back Salvon Ahmed plunged up the gut for a 6-yard touchdown to give the Huskies a 10-0 lead.
But why go for it on fourth-and-one? That’s simple.
“Well, I just thought that we could get it,” Petersen said. “A lot of times we put that on the o-line. I think they’re going to get it most of the time.”
When Washington took risks Friday, they paid off.
When Oregon State took risks, they fizzled.
Take the end of the first half, for example. Facing fourth-and-four from his own 45-yard line, Oregon State coach (and former Washington offensive coordinator) Jonathan Smith decided to go for it. Redshirt senior quarterback Jake Luton promptly threw just only second interception of the season, as junior nickelback Elijah Molden jumped a slant and secured his second career pick.
“Really just from film and knowing the offensive coordinator (Smith), obviously he was with us my freshman year, and in practice he would always get me with that same route,” Molden said. “Earlier in the game they got me with that route and it ended up being incomplete. So I just trusted the tape, I guess.”
Oh, and Smith decided to roll the dice to kick off the second half as well. The Beavers attempted an onside kick … but Husky safety Alex Cook, a converted wide receiver, effortlessly caught the ball and took a knee. UW promptly grinded out an 11-play, 39-yard drive that resulted in a 33-yard Peyton Henry field goal.
But, no, the Dawgs were not on the right side of every significant decision. For the second consecutive week, Eason whipped a fluttering pass to the far side of the field. And for the second consecutive week, the defensive back anticipated an out route and took off for a touchdown.
This time, it was Oregon State nickelback Jaydon Grant, who jumped wide receiver Aaron Fuller and streaked 36 yards to pay dirt with 7:01 left in the third quarter. Eason turned in perhaps his most underwhelming performance of the season, completing 16 of 32 passes for 175 yards and a pair of interceptions.
“Not throw it there. That’s for sure,” Petersen said, when asked if Eason should have done anything differently on the pick-six. “That’s not where it should have gone. It’s zone coverage. He’ll have some of those, and he’ll learn. It is what it is.”
But wait, did we say the decisions made all the difference? That’s true, but let’s add to it:
The defense made the difference.
Yes, that defense. The inexperienced, inconsistent, occasionally underwhelming defense that disintegrated late against both Oregon and Utah. The defense that struggled to put four complete quarters together in conference play.
On Friday, that defense held Oregon State — which ripped off 56 points and 572 total yards against Arizona the week before — to 119 total yards and forced 10 punts (as well as an interception and a turnover on downs). The Huskies held its opponent under 200 total yards for the first time since last season’s Pac-12 championship game, when Utah finished with 188 yards in a 10-3 UW win.
They secured seven tackles for loss and four sacks, including two by redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Joe Tryon (who has registered two sacks in the first half in back-to-back games). It smothered Oregon State into eight total second half yards and zero total offensive points — the first time UW’s defense has not allowed an opponent to score since a 49-0 victory over Sacramento State on Sept. 12, 2015.
Entering the game, Oregon State had converted 49.06% of its third downs, which ranked first in the Pac-12 and 14th nationally.
On Friday, the Beavers were 1-for-13 on third down — and 0-for-5 in the second half.
“I was seeing a lot of dudes just doing their job, flying around, smacking people. It feels good,” Tryon said.
For the defense’s more experienced Dawgs, it also felt familiar.
“We always knew we had it in us,” said Molden, who finished with six tackles and an interception. “This was only one game. We have a long season left. But that’s that Death Row defense that we talk about. That’s what we need to get every time.”
Ahmed’s 60-yard touchdown burst late in the third quarter essentially sealed the deal. The 5-foot-11 tailback out of Juanita High finished with a career-high 174 yards and two touchdowns on 25 attempts.
But the defense, and key decisions, were the difference in UW’s eighth consecutive win over Oregon State.
“It’s fun watching their confidence continue to grow,” second-year UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said of his young unit. “We’ve played in spurts really well in these last couple games — first quarter, second quarter, and then some spells of time in the third and fourth.
“But it was just really fun to watch these guys completely finish all the way through four quarters. I’m just really happy for the guys.”