This is a love story.
It’s a bend-but-don’t-break story. It’s a best friends story. It’s a blackouts and big runs story.
It starts with 5:39 left in the third quarter of No. 17 Washington’s 28-14 win on Saturday, as the USC Trojans threatened to dig into a 20-7 deficit. Three plays earlier, junior running back Stephen Carr had ripped off a 60-yard run down the right sideline, puncturing UW’s defense and swinging momentum in the process.
But nobody told junior nickelback Elijah Molden.
On second-and-four from Washington’s 10-yard line, USC quarterback Matt Fink took a shotgun snap and looked to his left. The redshirt junior didn’t notice Molden dropping into coverage, and UW’s 190-pound nickel leaped to secure his first career pick.
At least, that’s what the box score shows. As for Molden? He can’t remember.
“I really can’t even tell you (what happened),” he said, after nabbing his first interception in his 32nd career game. “I just know I jumped up and … next thing you know I’m running down the sideline celebrating.”
Junior running back Salvon Ahmed celebrated in his own unique way. One play after Molden’s pick, Ahmed took a handoff, planted his feet, cut right and then exploded up the gut for an untouched 89-yard score.
It was the fifth-longest run from scrimmage in school history, and the longest in the last quarter-century (since Napoleon Kaufman in 1994).
It lasted 11 long seconds … and he had it all the way.
“Yeeeeaaaahhh, I felt like I was gone (right away),” Ahmed said, before confirming it was also the longest run of his life. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I gotta score right here.’”
Once he did, the Fox cameras cut immediately to Molden, who strode down the sideline and uncorked a giddy growl.
“I’m just super happy for him,” Molden said after the game with a glowing grin. “I’m glad it was him, too. We’re best friends. When I saw him running down the sideline, I knew I’d see him on the sidelines afterwards.”
Of course, that should come as no surprise; the confirmed best friends see each other constantly. And, when they do, Ahmed is not afraid to set the expectations.
“Every week I’m like, ‘I need one (interception) from you.’ And he almost got two picks!” said Ahmed, who returned to the lineup after missing last weekend’s win over Brigham Young. “I was so happy to see a guy like Elijah who works so hard (succeed). You can ask anyone here, he works his tail off every single practice.
“So I couldn’t be happier. That is my best friend, so that is great.”
Together, a pair of best friends produced a 14-point swing. They scribbled their names all over the stat sheet in permanent marker. The 5-11, 195-pound Ahmed finished with a career-high 153 rushing yards and 9 yards per carry. Molden contributed six tackles, an interception and a pass breakup of his own.
In the span of 43 seconds, Molden passed the big-play baton to Ahmed, who turned on an extra engine and effectively buried USC.
“That was the sequence of the game right there,” said Husky coach Chris Petersen. “There was a lot of good plays out there, but that was certainly game-changing for sure.”
Like Petersen said, there were a lot of good plays, and they’re all worth mentioning. Freshman safety Cameron Williams turned in his second and third career interceptions, despite also being burned for a 44-yard touchdown by USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. Freshman cornerback Trent McDuffie led the team with nine tackles, and the tight end tandem of Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton combined for six catches for 92 yards.
“We had some different wrinkles that we had not put on tape (previously),” defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said of his secondary play.” But we wanted them to kind of look up and go, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here? And just change the picture for the quarterback, change the picture for the wideouts, don’t give them an easy look that they’ve been game-planning for all week long. Thankfully it worked out.”
It was not perfect. Junior quarterback Jacob Eason turned in a relatively quiet performance, completing 16 of 26 passes for 180 yards. A disaster of a trick play resulted in a potentially costly fourth-quarter fumble. And though the USC air raid managed just 163 passing yards and three interceptions, the Trojans torched the Huskies for 212 yards, 6.4 yards per carry and a touchdown on the ground.
“Regardless, they’re going to run the ball,” Lake said. “That’s what makes this offense completely different than a true air raid offense. This is just like a cousin of the air raid offense. It makes it very difficult, because they have three talented running backs. They have a talented offensive line. You can’t just sit back there and say, ‘Hey, I’m just going to play pass all day.’
“They can grind you and run the ball. They hit us on the long run and had some rushing yards against us, which we’ve got to clean up.”
But, to borrow from Petersen, UW ultimately produced game-changing plays. Its best friends showed up, then celebrated on the sideline.
“It was just a great moment for both of us,” Ahmed said of he and Molden. “We’re going to cherish it, and then move on. I know he’s going to do it week to week. So I was happy for him, but that’s what I expect from him.”
Added Lake: “We talked about our playmakers had to show up. We said we needed to put on a show for these fans, and our guys made plays — fourth-down stops, interceptions. We made those critical stops in those critical moments, and I cannot be more proud of those guys.”