By Phil Collin, www.theheartofdallasbowl.com
It’s easy to look at just the yardage totals and determine that Washington led the Pac-12 Conference in scoring defense and total defense.
But in a league with some high-powered offenses - all but three teams averaged more than 30 points per game - the way Washington went about taking away the strengths of opponents is telling.
Only one of Washington’s opponents, Utah, scored more than its season average against the Huskies. And only one opponent, Stanford, gained more yards than its season average when the Cardinal faced Washington.
But when the Huskies (6-6) take the field at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, they face a daunting dilemma from Southern Miss. In fact, it’s a dual dilemma.
The Huskies can’t aim its efforts at containing a 1,000-yard rusher in the opponent’s backfield, it has to stop two of them.
With Jalen Richard and Ito Smith, Southern Miss is one of two FBS teams with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Only 10 yards separate the pair and three times, they both hit the 100-yard mark in a game.
Richard, a 5-foot-8, 210-pound senior, has rushed for 1,098 yards and 14 touchdowns. Smith, a 5-9, 195-pound sophomore, has rushed for 1,088 yards, averages 7.0 yards per carry and scored eight TDs. While both are also all-purpose threats, Smith is fourth on the team in receiving with 44 catches for 493 yards and three touchdowns.
Washington, which allows an average of 133 yards per game on the ground, is facing a ground attack that averages 192 yards per game. The Huskies are wary.
“They have two really good running backs,” Washington senior defensive tackle Taniela Tupou said. “If one goes out, you still have to worry about the other one. They have a high-profile offense, they’re really good at moving the ball around, they can put points up on you.
“They both can make you miss, they’re both fast, strong guys so we’ve got our hands full.”
Washington coach Chris Petersen echoes the “hands full” theory and even after running through the offensive-minded Pac-12 slate sees the Golden Eagles as a different challenge. So maybe it’ll be all hands on deck to stop the backfield duo.
“You can just let their stats speak for themselves,” Petersen said. “They’re one of the moist prolific offenses in the country right now.
“Our defense has played at a pretty high level most of the year and so we have our hands full. I think we will be challenged in some ways like we haven’t been all year. That will be interesting.”
Southern Miss coach Todd Monken relishes the way Richard and Smith can keep opposing defenses guessing. With a big game Saturday, Smith could set the school single-season all-purpose yardage mark --- and Richard is already in the top five in that category.
“They have got some nuances that are a little bit different, but really being able to catch the b all out of the backfield, which we utilize that a lot, and getting them into space, that’s been an advantage for us.
“And we’ve been able to rotate those guys and keep them fresh.”
Petersen said that even with a .500 team, the Huskies have kept their minds on their preparation no matter how many obstacles they’ve faced.
“We’ve been pleased with these guys all season long in terms of their mindset every week, because it’s a hard season and it’s very easy to get off task and to lose motivation when you don’t win or when you lose a big game,” Petersen said. “They’ve always come to work.”