SEATTLE — Facing Arizona State was supposed to be a true challenge for No. 11 Washington’s secondary. The Sun Devils had an experienced quarterback and a top-flight wide receiver with NFL potential.
And then the Sun Devils switched gears, apparently deciding the best way to try to beat the Huskies was to avoid that standout secondary, though ASU still lost 27-20.
It was the latest sign of how much respect Washington is getting for its defensive backfield, which is annually producing NFL-level talent. The latest group is led by safeties Taylor Rapp and Jojo McIntosh, but its cornerback trio of Byron Murphy, Jordan Miller and Myles Bryant are equally good.
The result is a defense that’s solid from front to back and proving to be exceptionally difficult to throw against.
“They’re resilient. They’re tough, they’re gritty,” Washington co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said. “They respond on the sideline. They’re on the sideline, ‘Now we’re going to do this, this isn’t working let’s do this.’ They’re all in. I love how they fight for each other and how they play.”
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins might not have intended to pay Washington’s secondary the compliment that he did when he noted after Saturday’s loss that the Sun Devils knew going in that they wouldn’t be able to throw over the top. All their throws had to be underneath.
And it showed in the final stats. Arizona State had only two pass plays longer than 9 yards — a 12-yard pass to Brandon Aiyuk in the third quarter and a 20-yarder to Aiyuk midway through the fourth quarter, when the Sun Devils were in desperation mode trying to rally from 14 points down. The Sun Devils’ 104 yards passing were the fewest allowed by Washington against an FBS opponent since Oregon had just 31 yards passing last year. Since the start of the 2016 season, Washington has held 10 opponents to less than 150 yards passing.
Most notable was the job the Huskies did against Arizona State star wide receiver N’Keal Harry. He entered the game with 21 receptions for 315 yards and four TDs. He left Seattle with just five catches for 20 yards and was unable to make a major impact on the game.
“I’m surprised they didn’t take a lot of shots. I thought they would come in and throw the ball, make sure N’Keal got a couple of deep shots,” Murphy said. “But they twisted it up on us and we had to come out and play our game.”
The performance against the Sun Devils left Washington 12th in the country, allowing 154 yards passing per game. That’s second in the Pac-12 behind Utah, which leads the nation but has played only three games.
The 4.6 yards per attempt allowed by Washington are tied for second nationally. The Huskies are also one of four teams that have allowed only one passing touchdown, along with Utah, South Florida and Georgia Southern.
About the only thing the Huskies haven’t done is force many turnovers. They have just one interception and that came on a careless throw by Utah’s Tyler Huntley that was grabbed by Miller. Forcing turnovers may not be easy this week either facing No. 20 BYU. The Cougars have committed just three turnovers in four games.
“This offense is something we haven’t seen and won’t see again in terms of others shifts and motions and fly sweep action,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “It’s extremely unique, (they) do a nice job with it.”