The day after Washington defeated USC, Elijah Molden sat down and watched the play an estimated 30 times.
No, not that one.
He wasn’t replaying his interception at the goal line, the one that brought an abrupt halt to a promising Trojan drive in the third quarter. It was Molden’s first career pick — a long-time coming, he said — so nobody would have blamed him for soaking it in just a little longer.
But the junior defensive back was obsessing over another moment. The one he kept re-watching, the one that has stuck with him, happened in the fourth quarter. It was a missed opportunity, a near interception that slipped through his hands.
“I should have made that play,” Molden said Tuesday. “It doesn’t matter what kind of catch that was. … I wasn’t even worried about my interception.”
Before he finally recorded an interception against the Trojans, Molden had a career’s worth of almosts. A few of them happened a week earlier against BYU, including one on a deep ball in the first quarter. He turned and sealed off the receiver before the ball hit him right on the hands. But he couldn’t secure it, and it bounced off his fingers and onto the field instead.
“The day after, I always beat myself up about because those are opportunities,” Molden said. “I think mistakes like that, plays like that, can bring some things to light. Even if it’s as simple as, like, how to catch a football. Sometimes you got to go back to the basics.”
Molden might want some of those opportunities back, but his eight pass breakups are still tied for second nationally. The Huskies’ defensive backs have combined for seven interceptions, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and 15 pass breakups.
UW didn’t force a single turnover in the first two games of the season: A victory over Eastern Washington and a loss to Cal. But then senior safety Myles Bryant had two interceptions in the Week 3 win over Hawaii and something changed.
“He opened the flood gates,” Molden said.
After that game, Molden had a feeling the turnovers would start coming. He was right — and they haven’t really stopped since then, either.
“Confidence,” Molden said of the difference. “We still have a lot of clean up and there’s some mistakes that we made but we have really high standards in the room.”
The Huskies finished 2018 with 11 interceptions, and linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven (2) and defensive lineman Greg Gaines (1) contributed three of them. That means, five games into the season, UW’s secondary is just one pick away from matching the final interception tally of last year’s unit.
“I think if you ask any of the coaches or any of the players, the number one thing is the turnovers,” Molden said. “When we get turnovers, that’s when wins start to feel good.”
If that’s the case, the wins must be feeling really good lately. It helps that UW has played so many pass-heavy teams early in the season. Systems like Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense and USC’s version of the Air Raid provide the defensive backs with plenty of chances to make plays.
“When teams give us opportunities, we have to cash in,” Molden said. “We’ve been getting really good rush and a lot of times we’re playing with six DBs on the grass. We better be getting turnovers.”
The Huskies have some experience in the secondary with Molden, junior Keith Taylor and Bryant, who is the lone returning starter from 2018. But UW is also relying heavily on youth. Two true freshmen — safety Cameron Williams and cornerback Trent McDuffie — are currently starting. Redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon has also started this season and true freshman Asa Turner is Molden’s backup at nickel.
Growing pains were expected, and the early season hasn’t been without its miscues. But the freshmen have mostly made a positive impact, especially when it comes to turnovers. Williams leads the Huskies with three interceptions while McDuffie, who had a team-high eight tackles against USC, has a forced fumble and a recovery. Turner also has an interception.
“I think every game they are getting more confident, especially when they play hard teams and talented guys,” UW head coach Chris Petersen said after the win over USC. “There are so many things that happen to us and I think, ‘OK, we are going to get that right and that isn’t going to happen again’. That is our mission every game, whatever the score is, ‘How do we improve?’ We have been doing it every week, slowly but surely.”
When it comes to the Huskies’ secondary, Molden said there’s a tradition to uphold. Every few years, it’s up to a new group to set the standard. After the losses from last season — all four starting safeties and cornerbacks left the program — this year was one of those times.
That’s a major reason Molden why has spent so much time in the film room, playing and re-playing all the interceptions he could have had.
“All the great players that I played with, they were always upstairs with Lake, watching extra film,” Molden said. “That’s something that I think we’ve gotten better at as a whole group. Everyone has taken that next step. I didn’t take it until the end of last year.”