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Defense Makes Washington Huskies a Quiet National Championship Contender

Azeem Victor

Azeem Victor

As we assess the landscape at the first quarter checkpoint of the 2017 college football season, Alabama is a clear No. 1. Defending champion Clemson has been impressive in its title defense, and is a worthy No. 2. Third-ranked Oklahoma has the most impressive win of the young season, a 31-16 victory over Ohio State on the road. USC has been the talk of the Pac-12 since Sam Darnold took over at quarterback, and for good reason. Darnold is the darling of the upcoming NFL draft class, and with his supporting cast, the Trojans are arguably the most talented team in the conference and among the most talented in the country.

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Most fans and analysts would likely list the quartet of college football blue bloods (which happen to be the top four in Athlon Sports Top 25 rankings this week) as their top four candidates to make it to the College Football Playoff, with Penn State a legitimate contender as well. Ohio State is still in the mix, and a few other teams have picked up momentum, such as Georgia and TCU, both of whom were impressive in wins over ranked opponents last week.

However, one of last season’s final four has been largely overlooked this season. The Washington Huskies are 4-0 and currently check in at No. 6 in Athlon’s rankings, as well as both the AP and Coaches polls. The defending Pac-12 champions have been overshadowed by USC in the league, and Washington has yet to face a ranked opponent, making it difficult to make headlines in what has been an active first month of the season. But the Huskies were impressive in a Pac-12 title game rematch with a previously undefeated Colorado squad in Boulder last week, winning 37-10.

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Washington has several big-name offensive players, including quarterback Jake Browning, who has completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 958 yards and nine touchdowns and two interceptions, and running back Myles Gaskin, who leads the team with 355 rushing yards and seven TDs after breaking free for 202 yards and two scores last week against the Buffaloes. But the Huskies are even better defensively. And as the saying goes, defense wins championships.

Overall, the Huskies rank seventh in the nation in yards allowed per play (3.9). Washington also is in the top 20 in FBS in in scoring defense (11.8 ppg, 10th), total defense (274.0 ypg, 19th), rushing defense (100.3 ypg, 20th), and yards allowed per carry (2.69, tied for 10th). Washington has held all four of its opponents to 313 or fewer total yards this season, including last week’s performance in which Colorado gained just 311.

The Huskies have allowed just 173.8 passing yards per game, the second- best average in the conference so far, and have made many big plays against the pass. Washington has intercepted eight passes (two of which have been returned for touchdowns), to rank fourth nationally with two per game. The Huskies picked off Colorado quarterback Steven Montez three times last week, returning one of those for a touchdown. Washington also has 13 sacks (tied for 10th in FBS) with an impressive 9.1 percent sack rate.

It has been a group effort, with some of the lesser known Huskies stepping up to make the biggest plays. You won’t find All-Pac-12 talents such as Vita Vea, Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor atop the team leaderboards, but six players have picked off at least one pass this season (Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy each have two) and 11 players have recorded at least half a sack (freshman Ryan Bowman leads the team with two). This unit also has 29.0 tackles for a loss, with 20 separate players notching at least half a TFL.

Others have received a larger share of the spotlight this year, but thanks in large part to its diverse, playmaking defense, Washington is a well-rounded team worthy of a spot in the playoff discussion.

– Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.