University of Washington

Best friends Elijah Molden, Salvon Ahmed spark No. 17 Huskies to victory over No. 21 USC

The game came down to two plays, one right after the other. Two plays that transformed a promising USC drive into a Washington touchdown and 21-point cushion. Two plays that defined the Huskies’ 28-14 victory on Saturday.

Just ask head coach Chris Petersen. He’ll tell you the same story. When a reporter inquired about those plays after the game, Petersen didn’t even let the question end before he interrupted.

“Game-changing,” Petersen said. “That saved us. That sequence right there, that’s a 14-point swing. … That was the sequence of the game right there. There were a lot of other good plays out there but that was certainly game-changing, for sure.”

It all started with Elijah Molden.

USC running back Stephen Carr had just broken free for a 60-yard gain down the right sideline, moving the Trojans (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12) deep into UW territory. USC appeared primed to cut into the Huskies’ 20-7 advantage before quarterback Matt Fink targeted Michael Pittman Jr. in the end zone. He ran into Molden instead.

The Huskies’ junior defensive back entered the game without a single career interception, a fact defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake grinned about earlier this week. Lake enjoyed teasing Molden about the drought, and openly contemplated starting a tally for the amount of days Molden had been on campus without a pick.

But Lake never got the chance, and Molden joked after the game that he’ll now have to focus all his attention on senior Keith Taylor. He’s still waiting for his first career interception. Molden, who chose the ideal time for his, is not. He jumped the route, ending the threat and giving the Huskies the ball at their 4-line line.

“I just know I jumped up and next thing I know I was running down the sideline celebrating,” Molden said. “We kind of joke about that some times. After someone makes a play you just kind of black out a little bit. It happened so fast.”

Enter Salvon Ahmed, who happens to be Molden’s best friend. Before every game — and often in the days in between — Ahmed tells Molden that he needs an interception from him. When Molden finally came through, Ahmed had to reciprocate.

On the second play from scrimmage, the junior running back weaved through the Trojans’ defense, cut toward the right sideline and took off for an 89-yard touchdown. Cornerback Chris Steele was closing as Ahmed neared the end zone, but he cut a diagonally across the field to stay out in front. After a successful two-point conversion, the Huskies moved ahead 28-7 with 4:56 left in the third quarter.

“That was awesome to be able to get an 80-plus yard play in the run game,” Petersen said. “That doesn’t happen too often. When we can create explosives in the run game, certainly when it goes for touchdowns, that what you want to do.”

And when Ahmed reached the sideline, Molden was there to greet him.

“It was a big moment for both of us,” Ahmed said. “We’re cherish it and then we move on. ... I was happy for him but that’s what I expect from him.”

Then he broke into a grin.

“That’s what I need every game,” Ahmed said with a laugh. “(Molden) kind of messed it up for himself, but that’s all right.”

USC responded on its next drive, pulling within 28-14 with 2:10 left in the third quarter after Pittman beat freshman safety Cameron Williams and Taylor to haul in a 44-yard touchdown pass from Fink. Then, early in the fourth quarter, the Huskies turned the ball over after a bungled trick play led a fumble that was recovered by Steele. But the Trojans couldn’t capitalize. UW held them to a three-and-out.

As the minutes ticked down, the Huskies’ defense made sure UW maintained its lead — even when, in Petersen’s words, the Huskies’ offense sputtered. Late in the fourth quarter, the Trojans drove all the way down to UW’s 2-yard line. But the Huskies pushed back, forcing 4th-and-goal. Defensive back Myles Bryant then broke up a pass intended for Drake London in the end zone.

UW’s offense managed just five plays before returning the ball to USC with 2:20 remaining. The Trojans drove back into Husky territory, reaching the 27-yard line before Fink threw another interception, this one to a leaping Williams. It was the second interception of the game for Williams, and this one allowed UW to run out the clock.

“We kind of gave them ... the second touchdown,” Lake said. “(Williams) bounced back. He bounced back and got the game-sealing interception and that’s what we talked about on the sideline. Let’s calm down here. Let’s reload. Let’s do what we’ve been doing all week in practice and what we’ve been doing up the third quarter at this point. And he responded. He was mentally tough and responded and made the play.”

The Huskies held USC to 375 total yards. Fink completed just 19-of-32 passes for 163 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Last week, in the Trojans’ victory over Utah, Fink completed 21-of-30 passes for 351 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

The Trojans’ daunting trio of wide receivers — Pittman, Amon St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns — were limited to just 139 total yards and a single touchdown. The Trojans entered the game averaging 33.3 points and 443 yards of total offense per game.

But UW’s defense was ready.

“We talked about our playmakers have to show up and we have to put on a show for our fans,” said UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “And our guys made plays: Fourth down stops, interceptions, made those critical plays in critical moments. Couldn’t be more proud of those guys.”

The Huskies went into halftime with a 17-7 advantage after jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Redshirt freshman Richard Newton started the scoring on a 1-yard run, recording his seventh touchdown this season. Then, with 29 seconds left in the first quarter, Andre Baccellia dove on an Ahmed fumble in the end zone to boost the lead to 14-0.

At the start of the second quarter, Aaron Fuller called for a fair catch at the Huskies 5-yard line. UW then committed two penalties, which pushed it back to the 2-yard line before Joel Whitford came on to punt. The sequence shifted the field position battle in USC’s favor, allowing the Trojans to start their drive at the Huskies’ 39-yard line. They eventually scored on a 3-yard rush by Fink after a 12-play drive that lasted 5 minutes and 41 seconds.

Leading by a touchdown, the Huskies drove 49 yards in 11 plays to set up a 28-yard Peyton Henry field goal as time expired. Henry added a 35-yard field goal on UW’s first drive out of the break to put the Huskies up 20-7 with 12:02 left in the third quarter.

“We’re extremely proud of our defense,” Petersen said. “I thought we did just enough to keep them off balance. It’s a really throw-first team and we really took that away from them.”

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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.