Elijah Qualls has really been excited about the holidays this year. The burly young man who graduated from Casa Grande High School four years ago was brimming with anticipation for Christmas Day. And he’s even more fired up about New Year’s Eve.
Qualls plays defensive tackle for the University of Washington, and for the Huskies this is the most wonderful time of the year. On Dec. 25, they packed up and flew from Seattle to Atlanta, site of this year’s Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. On Dec. 31, Qualls and his cohorts will line up against Alabama, a team that some are calling the greatest in college football history, for a chance to play for the national championship.
“I understand not many people get to have this type of opportunity in their college careers,” Qualls said by phone. “I appreciate every moment of it.”
The task at hand is monumental. The top-ranked Crimson Tide have won 25 consecutive games, and go into the Peach Bowl with a 13-0 record in 2016.
Nick Saban’s team is probably known more for its defense, but make no mistake. The Alabama offense is fearsome. The Tide started the regular season by ringing up 52 points on USC, and ended it by hanging 54 on Florida. Both of those teams are currently in the Associated Press top 20. Alabama also scored 48 or more against five other schools. The SEC champion averaged 471.3 yards per game.
Saban has a couple of top NFL prospects in tackle Cam Robinson and tight end O.J. Howard, but his offense is generally hard to key. No one on the team rushed for 1,000 yards; on the other hand, four different guys cracked 500. That included freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who gained 2,592 yards through the air and added 841 on the ground.
Alabama is currently favored to beat Washington, the Pac-12 champion and the No. 4 team in the nation, by 14 points. And Qualls is just fine with that.
“I love it,” he said. “But at the same time I don’t really care what people think, because most of the critics never played a down of football in their life.”
By the time the ball kicks off at the Georgia Dome, Washington will have gone 29 days without playing a football game. Qualls admits it’s frustrating to wait that long for the biggest sporting event of his life, but the Huskies have plenty to keep them occupied. Like watching video. Qualls said UW head coach Chris Petersen and his staff have dialed down the contact at practice, but the film study has gotten serious.
You may be surprised to hear that Qualls did not experience terror when he started watching the Crimson Tide offense in action. Asked whether he agreed that the Crimson Tide offense is highly diverse, he said: “Yes, but no more diverse than our defense. I like our matchups.”
The heart of the Huskies’ multiplicity is their defensive line, a unit that is widely considered one of the best in college football. Washington, which allowed just 17.2 points per game, plays a base 4-3 defense but will show you many different looks. Qualls says he lines up “anywhere from 0 through 9,” which means anywhere from directly in front of the center to outside the widest wide receiver.