SEATTLE — After Washington’s first game against Utah last season — a hard-fought 21-7 victory on the road — the Huskies were equal parts exhausted and jubilant.
In a battle of the Pac-12’s top two defenses, UW had come out on top. It held the Utes to 261 total yards and didn’t allow them to score outside a first-quarter touchdown. The Huskies also had two fumble recoveries and an interception.
Afterward, when the players and coaches met with the media in the back of an end zone, there were plenty of grins. But defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake also said the Huskies were drained. UW’s battles with Utah are always physical — two Utes were ejected for targeting in that game — and they take a toll.
That was the third game of 2018, following the Huskies’ season-opening loss to Auburn and a win at home over North Dakota. When senior defensive back Myles Bryant thinks back to that road matchup, he knows one thing for sure: It set the tone for the rest of UW’s 10-4 season.
It’s also a game he expects the Huskies to re-watch before Saturday’s game against the ninth-ranked Utes.
“Pretty much that’s just like the standard,” Bryant said of what the victory revealed. “That’s the way you have to play around here. If you want to be a big-time ballplayer, big-time defense, that’s the example that was set by our team last year. I feel like we’re going to watch that game just because of certain coverages and certain stuff they did and certain stuff we did. I feel like it’s a good game to watch just to get that physicality back.”
The timing for this year’s game is different. It’s late in the schedule, coming after UW has already dropped three conference games. The Huskies look different, too, after losing nine starters from a defense that dominated both wins over Utah last season, including the Pac-12 champioship game.
No matter what happens at Husky Stadium, it’s not going to set the tone for 2019. UW’s goals, including defending its conference title, are all but impossible now. But a victory could give the Huskies a reset, a performance to build on not just for the rest of the season but also the future.
If Bryant is correct, and UW does rewatch last year’s games, there are surely lessons to be learned. In 2018, the Huskies’ experienced and elite defense allowed a conference-leading 16.4 points and 306.2 yards per game. While UW is still in the upper half of the conference defensively this season, the drop-off to 21.5 points and 372.2 yards per game has been costly.
And maybe it should have been predictable.
“It’s very easy to see,” Lake said of the difference in the secondary. “When you have seniors and juniors back there then they are usually going to play at a higher level. They are going to be in the right gaps. They’re going to be in the right coverage. They’re going to make more plays on the ball. We’re going to play better defense, that’s pretty easy to see.
“We got some young guys back there. We’ve played good at times and we’ve played bad at times. That’s the growing, maturation process for a young defense. We’ve been encouraged by some plays we’ve made out there but we’ve (also) been discouraged by some plays that we think we could’ve played better.”
The Huskies will get an opportunity to take a step forward this week against the team the veterans have routinely called their most physical opponent. It’s also a game they look forward to annually.
“I don’t think you can play football if you don’t have that mindset,” said junior defensive back Elijah Molden. “Or if you do, someone might expose you. It’s kind of like old school football: Run it up the middle, wrap them up tackling. That’s what it comes down to.”
Defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe said that physicality starts up front with the Utes’ offensive line.
“For how physical they are, they are actually more athletic than you would give them credit for,” Malloe said. “They can open up gaps. If you give a guy like (Zack) Moss those types of holes where he can choose from A, B or C and whatever the creases are, he does a great job staying tight to the wall. Those guys do a great job just giving him whatever space the running back needs. We’re hoping to not only plug up gaps but trying to eliminate spaces that he can see and give him a clear few.”
Despite missing Utah’s game against Washington State with an injury, senior running back Moss ranks third in the Pac-12 with 728 rushing yards on 110 carries. He averages 104.0 yards per game, which trails only UCLA’s Joshua Kelley (105.0 ypg). Moss also leads the conference with 10 rushing touchdowns.
UW has struggled against the run this season, and missed tackles have been a consistent problem. The Huskies have allowed 147.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks fifth in the Pac-12. Last year, they gave up 116.1 yards per game, second in the conference behind Utah.
“I think Zack Moss is the best running back in the Pac-12, for sure, if not one of the best running backs in the country,” Lake said. “He’s getting better and better every single year. He’s got that prototype size that I like. … He’s shifty. He’ll wait for a hole to open up and he’ll turn on his bursts. He spins out of tackles, breaks a lot of tackles.
“He was something to deal with when we had to play down at Utah last year. Even this year, you can see that they’re even more devoted to the run game. … He’s just an experienced, senior player. He’s playing like a senior.”
And in order for the Huskies to slow him on Saturday, they might need their young defenders to play a little more like seniors, too.
“I think it’s just they’re a physical team and we love that kind of brand of football,” Molden said. “We have a tremendous respect for them so we know what kind of ball it’s going to be. Can’t wait.”