University of Washington

Can the Huskies’ offense take another step forward against one of the nation’s top defenses?

Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan used one word to respond to the question, and then he looked up at the media members surrounding him like answer should have been obvious.

In this case, he was right. Every person gathered around Hamdan already knew that No. 9 Utah’s defense would provide the Huskies with their biggest test of the season. It’s why they laughed at Hamdan’s short, to-the-point answer: “Yes.”

After a beat, though, Hamdan elaborated anyway.

“Just a really, really talented group,” Hamdan said. “As well-coached a defense as there is in this conference. The front seven does an outstanding job. Physical players all over the place. NFL draft picks all over the place. That will be obviously be an awesome challenge.”

Utah — like the Oregon team the Huskies lost to before the bye week — is one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have the No. 4 scoring defense (10.3 ppg) and the No. 3 total defense (231.0 ypg) in the country. They’ve given up just nine touchdowns, allowing no more than 23.0 points in any game this season.

Last year, UW and Utah had the top two defenses in the Pac-12, and both of their games reflected it. The Huskies won the conference opener 21-7 on the road before topping the Utes 10-3 in the Pac-12 championship game. Wide receivers coach Junior Adams wasn’t on UW’s staff yet, but he was watching. He knows what to expect when Utah arrives at Husky Stadium on Saturday.

“They’re physical,” he said. “You watch those games, especially the Pac-12 championship, that was a physical game, a defensive game. I thought we did some good things on offense, too. We just couldn’t punch it in the end zone. These games, this is why you come to the University of Washington. This is why you play football here.”

When considering this year’s version of Utah’s defense, Hamdan pointed to a strong front seven led by defensive end Bradlee Anae. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection last season, Anae led the Pac-12 with 8.0 sacks in 2018. He already has 7.0 sacks this season.

“You got to know where Anae is at all times,” Hamdan said. “You got to know where the interior guys are at all times. I think there’s a young, interior technique that’s going to be as good as anything in the conference.”

The Huskies will also have to contend with junior cornerback Jaylen Johnson and a dominant secondary. Johnson is widely considered one of the top — if not the top — cornerbacks in the country. A 2018 All-Pac-12 first-team selection, Johnson has an interception and eight pass breakups on the season. As a whole, Utah’s defense has totaled 16 sacks and nine interceptions. It also has four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

“They’re going to be in your face,” Adams said. “They’re going to be aggressive. They are going to come up and challenge you every snap. The thing is, too, when the ball is in there air, it’s tight coverage. You’re going to have to make plays with the ball is in the air. They’re physical. We understand what we got ahead of us. They got a big-time corner over there. We’re very aware of who he is.”

For three quarters of its 35-31 loss to Oregon, UW put together one of its best offensive performances of the season. The Huskies wilted in the fourth, but they still scored more points against the Ducks than any other team at that point in the season. Even though the game ended with a defeat, the Huskies acknowledged on Wednesday that they took steps forward offensively. The young wide receivers made an impact. Salvon Ahmed rushed for 140 yards on 24 carries. They scored four touchdowns and once held a 14-point lead.

It was progress, but UW still wants to see more from its offense.

And that won’t come easy against the Utes.

“They have one of the best defenses in the country,” said head coach Chris Petersen. “I don’t know what all the stats are saying and all that stuff, but there is no doubt this is one of the best defenses in the country.”

Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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