Cornerback Elijah Molden got his first career interception at a critical moment.
Trailing 20-7 in the third quarter, USC was deep in Washington territory when quarterback Matt Fink targeted Michael Pittman Jr. with a pass that could have pulled the Trojans within one possession. Instead, Molden came up with the pick at the goal line. On the Huskies’ next possession, running back Salvon Ahmed went 89 yards for a touchdown.
The 14-point swing provided the defining moments of the Huskies’ 28-14 victory over USC. But Molden’s interception — later, he nearly added a second — wasn’t the only pivotal play for a UW defensive back on Saturday afternoon.
Freshman safety Cameron Williams had two interceptions, bringing his career total to three. His second one effectively ended the game after USC reached UW’s 27-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Myles Bryant’s time came, too. With 4:05 left in the game, the Trojans were behind by two touchdowns and facing 4th-and-goal from the Huskies’ 2-yard line. Fink launched a pass toward Drake London in the back of the end zone. UW’s senior safety was there to knock it away.
Then there was freshman cornerback Trent McDuffie, who had a team-high nine tackles in his third career start.
Redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon had four tackles and a pass breakup.
“I think every game, (the confidence) just builds,” Molden said. “Especially when … (the Trojans) have some playmakers. I think they had one long pass for a touchdown. But other than that, we did a good job of holding them.”
Coming into the season, UW had to replace all of its starting cornerbacks and safeties. Bryant was the only returning starter in the secondary, but he primarily played at nickelback in 2018. This year, he shifted to safety.
Molden and junior Keith Taylor, who has started every game at cornerback, also had plenty of experience. But the Huskies needed young players — Williams, McDuffie, Gordon and freshman backup Asa Turner — to fill the rest of the gaps.
There have been growing pains, mostly in the form of missed tackles. Even on Saturday, USC’s second touchdown — a 44-yard pass from Fink to Pittman— was made possible because Williams allowed Pittman to slip by him up the left sideline.
“He bounced back and got the game-sealing interception, and that’s what we talked about on the sideline,” said UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “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.”
Molden said that confidence has been the biggest difference in the young defensive backs over the first five games. Missteps happen, he said, but they’ve quickly been able to rebound.
In the last three games — victories over Hawaii, BYU and USC, respectively — the Huskies have forced nine turnovers. That total includes seven interceptions for the defensive backs. Turner got his first career interception against BYU. In the same game, McDuffie forced a fumble and recovered it along the sideline.
“When you’re out there, the more reps you get, the more game experience you get, you really start to get comfortable in a role,” Molden said. “Trent and Cam, they are doing a phenomenal job.”
Head coach Chris Petersen has noticed the growth, too. After the win, he called McDuffie “a true warrior.” And Williams, he said, is really starting to get a feel for what the Huskies look for from their safeties.
“We play our safety deep so that he can roam and pick off passes,” Petersen said. “Now we are starting to get his hands on some things. He will continue to flourish in that role.”
The Huskies’ secondary locked down USC’s passing game. They held Fink to 19-of-32 passing for 163 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. The Trojans’ top three wide receivers — Pittman, Amon St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns — were limited to just 139 total yards and a single touchdown.
In last week’s win over Utah, Fink completed 21-of-30 passes for 351 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Pittman caught 10 passes for 232 yards in that game. Heading into Saturday’s loss, the Trojans’ top three receivers each had more than 200 yards on the season.
Before falling to the Huskies, USC was averaging 33.3 points and 443 yards of total offense per game. UW held the Trojans to 14 points and 375 total yards. As the Huskies enter the bulk of their Pac-12 schedule, a young defense that lost nine starters appears to be hitting its stride.
“I think every game they are getting more confident,” Petersen said of the freshmen defensive backs, “especially when they play hard teams and talented guys.
“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.”