Ready for some blasphemy?
There is something Washington’s defense does better than Alabama’s. And it’s something the Huskies will have to continue to do well if they are to have any chance of winning the College Football Playoff semifinal Saturday against the No. 1 Crimson Tide, whose players have spent the past two days here answering questions about whether their team might be among the greatest ever.
Alabama leads the country in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense, and ranks ahead of the Huskies in pass defense efficiency, too. They are fast and mean and without weakness.
But if there is a number UW supporters can cite as reason the Huskies might make this a game, it is their nation-leading 33 takeaways (19 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries) — and, perhaps just as important, their nation-leading, plus-21 turnover margin.
Though the Crimson Tide have scored a nation-leading 10 defensive touchdowns, they have forced “only” 24 turnovers, and have committed 19 for a rather mortal turnover margin of plus-5.
Washington, meanwhile, has given the ball away only 12 times — seven interceptions thrown by quarterback Jake Browning, two Browning fumbles, one fumble each by John Ross (in the Apple Cup) and Dante Pettis (on a punt return against California), and a fumble charged to Hayden Schuh when Oregon State recovered an onside kick attempt.
That’s only five lost fumbles. To put that in perspective, UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria has recovered five fumbles this season by himself, a figure that leads the nation.
UW’s offense isn’t just getting lucky when the ball comes loose, either. The Huskies have put the ball on the ground 11 times total, fewer than all but six teams in the country. And neither of UW’s top two running backs, Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, have fumbled this season.
“When you say plus-21, that’s a team deal,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said on Wednesday. “That’s us getting the ball, creating turnovers and our offense doing a great job of holding onto (the ball). Every year, we (the defense) emphasize turnovers, and every year, the offense emphasizes holding onto the ball. I don’t know why they come in bunches.”
UW’s defense has forced turnovers at a consistently high rate since coach Chris Petersen (and Kwiatkowski) arrived in 2014. The Huskies ranked 17th that year in takeaways and eighth in turnover margin, and ranked 13th in takeaways last season — but finished with a turnover margin of just plus-5, the result of a young offense and a young quarterback growing painfully.
“Last year, we might make a turnover and then we’d be right back on the field — make a turnover, then we’d be right back on the field,” UW senior defensive back Kevin King said. “Now, we make a stop and it’s a touchdown. It turns into points. That’s been something that’s been huge in our success this year.”
Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said Browning’s ability to take care of the ball might be his most impressive trait.
“I’d say the big thing is he protects the football,” Pruitt said of UW’s sophomore quarterback, who also has thrown 42 touchdown passes and ranks second among Power Five passers in efficiency. “There’s very few interceptions, very few turnovers, which is very important.”
But not any more important this week than any other, Browning insists.
“You can’t turn the ball over against anybody, whether it’s Alabama or really anybody,” Browning said. “Turnovers will create losses no matter who you’re playing. We’ve got to take care of the ball, and I don’t think you can really emphasize that any more than we have.”
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, a true freshman, has thrown nine interceptions this season, though Washington’s defense — particularly its secondary — is likely the best he has faced so far.
And Alabama’s defense, obviously, is the best Washington will see, and the best in the country at returning turnovers for scores.
“I think both groups have pretty good ball skills,” Pettis said of the teams’ defensive backs. “If the ball’s in the air, they can make a play on it pretty much as good as (the) receivers. I do see a lot of similarities. I’m guessing they spend a lot of time on making sure they get turnovers, just like us.”
The Huskies put defensive players through a five-minute circuit — a series of different drills — nearly every day in practice, Kwiatkowski said, to “keep guys thinking about turnovers and how important they are.”
There is no overstating it this week — Washington cannot win if it gives Alabama the ball, and likely won’t win if it doesn’t take it away.
But if the Huskies fall on a fumble or pick off Hurts a time or two? That might be the surest recipe for a monumental upset, and it’s something Washington has done better — or at least more frequently — than any team in the country.