On New Year’s Eve, the University of Washington Huskies will play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Peach Bowl, which is serving as one of two College Football Playoff semifinals. The winner of the game, which kicks off in Atlanta at 3 p.m. ET, will advance to the national title game on January 9 in Tampa, Florida.
How did the Huskies make it to their biggest bowl game in 16 seasons? Defense played a big role. Take a look at how Washington got here and who to watch against Alabama.
The Huskies came up big in big games.
While the Huskies had many commanding defensive games and led the country in turnover margin at +21 (Alabama ranked 36th at +5), two stand out: their game against Stanford on September 30, and the Apple Cup against rival Washington State on November 25.
Against the Cardinal (ranked seventh at the time), the Huskies (ranked tenth) solidified themselves as a top 10 team, winning 44–6. It was the Huskies’ largest win over a top 10 team, surpassing the school’s 36-point victory over Wisconsin in 1959.
Washington’s offense was efficient that day, but the defense had eight sacks. Stanford had only given up half that total in the first three games of the season. Furthermore, the Huskies’ defense forced a pair of turnovers and held the Cardinal offense to 213 total yards. (Washington gained 424.)
A lot was at stake in the Apple Cup: The winner would earn the Pac-12 North title and have a berth in the conference championship game. The Huskies forced four turnovers in a decisive 45–17 victory. Defensive back Budda Baker made one of the team’s three interceptions. DJ Beavers also had an interception to go along with a fumble recovery.
Washington rallied past significant injuries.
In early November, the Huskies lost two of their best defensive players.
On the 7th, Joe Mathis tore a ligament in his toe while jogging during practice. Mathis, a senior who was one of the best edge rushers in the country, lead the team with five sacks until he got hurt. (Psalm Wooching now leads the team with six.)
The other big injury came on the 12th in the second quarter of the USC game. Junior linebacker Azeem Victor was carted off the field with a leg injury and had season-ending surgery two days later. He was the team leader in tackles with 67 when he got hurt and still is. He plans on returning to Washington to play his senior year.
Who will step up against Alabama QB Jalen Hurts?
Baker, who had one interception against WSU, also had one against Oregon. He is also right behind Victor in tackles, with 65. Baker can rush the passer (two sacks this season) and knock passes down (17 in his career).
The other player to watch is fellow DB Taylor Rapp. He has averaged an interception each game for the past four games and forced a fumble against Arizona State. He has 48 tackles this season.
Baker told reporters that when he saw Rapp for the first time, “We saw this freshman. He came in while we were doing our player practices…doing the DB drills, [and] he looked flawless. He looked like one of us the first time he came out there. So I was like, Okay, this guy’s good. He’s going to play.”
Photography by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images