SEATTLE — Southern California was on the verge of making it a one-possession game.
Elijah Molden and Salvon Ahmed had other plans.
With the Trojans at the Washington 10-yard line in the third quarter, Molden jumped in front of a slant route and snagged an interception to thwart a USC scoring chance.
Two plays later, the speedy Ahmed made a quick cut at the line of scrimmage and burst free for an 89-yard touchdown run to give the Huskies a 21-point cushion.
Buoyed by that momentum-swinging third-quarter sequence, No. 17-ranked Washington earned a 28-14 win over No. 21 USC in a chilly Pac-12 showdown Saturday afternoon before 66,975 fans at Husky Stadium.
“That was game-changing,” Washington head coach Chris Petersen said. “That sequence right there, that’s a 14-point swing. … That was the sequence of the game right there.”
The Huskies (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) shut down third-string quarterback Matt Fink and USC’s Air Raid offense for much of the contest, limiting the Trojans to just 116 yards through the first two-and-a-half quarters.
USC (3-2, 2-1) was down to its third-string quarterback after starter JT Daniels suffered a season-ending injury in the Trojans’ opener and backup Kedon Slovis sustained a concussion on the opening possession last week against Utah.
Fink threw for 351 yards and three TDs in last week’s upset of then-No. 10 Utah — including 232 yards to star receiver Michael Pittman Jr. — but couldn’t replicate that success against Washington. The Huskies intercepted Fink three times and limited the junior to 19-of-32 passing for 163 yards.
“I am extremely proud of our defense,” Petersen said. “Those guys played at a high level. We did just enough to keep them off-balance. We had some really good turnovers.”
Washington took advantage of great field position in the opening quarter, scoring on TD drives of 35 and 38 yards.
The Huskies’ first scoring drive came after a third-down sack by linebacker Kyler Manu forced a USC punt from deep in its own territory. Washington took over at the Trojans 35 and running back Richard Newton scored five plays later, rushing for a 1-yard TD to give the Huskies a 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing possession, Washington freshman defensive back Cameron Williams intercepted an overthrown pass by Fink and returned it to the Trojans 38. Four plays later, Ahmed ran for a 4-yard gain and fumbled just before the goal line, but receiver Andre Baccellia dived on the loose ball in the end zone to stretch the lead to 14-0 in the final minute of the opening period.
It was yet another strong start for the Huskies, who have outscored their opponents 77-3 in the first quarter this season.
USC responded in the second quarter, converting a fourth down before cutting the margin to 14-7 on a 3-yard read-option TD run by Fink.
Washington’s next two scores were set up by receptions from its tight ends.
After the Huskies converted a fourth down at midfield late in the first half, Lake Stevens High School alum Jacob Eason connected with Hunter Bryant for a 20-yard gain. That led to a 28-yard field goal by Peyton Henry on the final play of the first half.
Then on the opening play from scrimmage in the second half, Eason connected with Cade Otton on a 36-yard play-action pass. That set up a 35-yard field goal by Henry, which pushed the Huskies’ lead to 20-7.
Later in the third quarter, USC was in the red zone and looking to make it a one-score contest when Molden came up with his game-changing interception.
“I really can’t even tell you,” Molden said when asked about what he saw on the play. “I just know I jumped up, and then next thing you know I was running down the sideline celebrating. … It happened so fast.”
Two plays later, Ahmed sprinted down the right sideline on his 89-yard TD scamper to make it 28-7. It was the fifth-longest run from scrimmage in Washington program history and the longest since a 91-yarder by Napoleon Kaufman in 1994.
Ahmed, who missed last week’s game at BYU with a leg injury, finished with a career-high 153 yards and a TD on 17 carries.
“As soon as I saw him get that crease, I knew he was gone,” Bryant said. “He’s one of the fastest players in the country, so any time he gets in open space, it’s good for us.”
USC answered right back with a 44-yard TD pass from Fink to Pittman Jr., which trimmed the margin to 28-14 late in the third quarter.
The Trojans had another chance to make it a one-score game with less than five minutes to play in the fourth, but once again the Huskies’ defense held strong. With USC facing 4th-and-goal from the Washington 2, senior defensive back Myles Bryant broke up a pass in the corner of the end zone to help seal the victory.
“Our guys made plays,” Huskies defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said of his team’s red-zone defense. “Fourth-down stops, interceptions — (we) made those critical stops in those critical moments. I can’t be more proud of these guys.”
Eason had a relatively quiet afternoon, completing 16 of 26 passes for 180 yards. Through five games, the Lake Stevens native has completed 73 percent of his passes for 1,063 yards, 10 TDs and two interceptions.
Washington redshirt-freshman defensive back Kyler Gordon, a former Archbishop Murphy High School star, made a diving third-down pass breakup in Huskies territory to stall USC’s opening drive.
After opening with four of its first five games at Husky Stadium, Washington travels the next two weeks for back-to-back road matchups at Stanford and Arizona. The Huskies haven’t won at Stanford since 2007, having lost their past five games against the Cardinal in Stanford Stadium.