SEATTLE — In the minutes that followed the University of Washington’s upset win over USC last Saturday night, a faux reporter for one of the countless fansites that cover the Husky football team scurried up to UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt and began gushing with praise.
The UW defense, the credentialed inquisitor surmised, had performed at such a higher level than it had in a loss to Nebraska two weeks earlier that it was “like totally a different team.”
Seeing as though the Huskies’ run defense had just been torched for 298 rushing yards — 223 of them came from USC running back Allen Bradford — the difference was more like night and evening than night and day.
Yet Holt played along dutifully, talking about how the Huskies battled and “got back to Husky football,” … until a faux broadcaster wearing a credential from the flagship radio station cut off the interview when he started hopping up and down and hugged the defensive coordinator from behind.
Despite the effervescent joy of the Huskies’ groupies after UW shocked USC for the second year in a row, the fact remains that this team still has plenty of defensive deficiencies. It needs to be said — and you probably won’t read this on the fan blogs or hear it on the pro-UW radio station — that the Huskies’ defense is still a long, long way from being a formidable one.
After giving up 533 total yards to Nebraska and 484 to USC, the Huskies dropped to 107th in the nation in total defense (440.3 yards per game) and 113th in rushing defense (234.8 per game). And keep in mind that’s out of 120 teams.
The defense that had so many question marks heading into the 2010 season appears to have even fewer answers after four games.
“We do hold ourselves to a higher expectation,” senior safety Nate Williams said while standing on the practice field at Husky Stadium earlier this week, “and we’re going to come out here every day working hard to try to achieve that.”
Some of the Huskies’ defensive struggles could be seen coming from a mile away — like the loss of top playmakers Donald Butler and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, an infusion of youth and a heavy stable of returning players but only a handful of whom bringing much previous success.
What has been even more frustrating is the influx of problems that weren’t expected — most notably, a lack of forced turnovers and a sudden epidemic of missed tackles.
The latter was such an obvious problem in the Nebraska game that the Huskies spent a good part of the next two weeks and the bye weekend working on that fundamental part of football. The result was 16 more missed tackles in the win over USC.
“We tackle every day in practice,” UW linebackers coach Mike Cox said three days ago. “We’ve lost a couple guys in practice because of it. That’s the only way to get better at it. It’s emphasized. At some point in time, someone else (other than the coaches) has to take ownership of it. It’s not like we don’t work on it.”
Much like last season, when Holt was taking over the Huskies for the first time, UW has limited resources. A talented freshman class has only a few game-ready players, while veterans like Williams, linebacker Mason Foster and cornerback Desmond Trufant can’t carry the load all by themselves.
While the coaches haven’t resorted to shuffling the lineup on a week-to-week basis, as they did last year, they have certainly been proactive. Freshmen like safety Sean Parker, cornerback Gregory Ducre and defensive end Hau’oli Jamora have seen their playing time extended, while the USC game saw Holt mix up the defensive front four to add size on the ends.
UW’s defense had two key stops late in Saturday’s game, but the performance still wasn’t good enough for the Huskies to swallow.
“Our expectation is to stop a team, not to let them drive 80 yards and then stop them,” Williams said when asked whether he took pride in UW’s ability to bend but not break. “That’s really not what any unit would pride themselves on. Personally, I don’t think our unit prides itself on that, either. That’s something we need to work on more.
“Everyone needs to take care of their job, and we’ll get that quote-unquote tag taken off of our unit.”
Middle linebacker Cort Dennison said the only tag the Huskies defense will get will be the one that comes with the team’s overall won-loss record.
“You’re not going to look back at the end of the year and look at all the yards they gave up,” he said. “You’re going to look back and say, ‘They beat USC.’ The most important thing anyone could do is win. And we won. We realize we have a lot of room for improvement, and we’re going to work on those things as best we can.”
After allowing averages of 446.4, 451.8 and 389.5 yards per game, respectively, over the past three seasons, UW’s defense took plenty of hits. Through four games, this year’s unit is putting up statistics that are maddeningly similar.
A win over USC is a good step, but the Huskies are still a few long strides away from becoming the bowl contender that their fan base — even the ones who carry pens and microphones into the post-game interview sessions — expected them to be.
Not even head coach Steve Sarkisian is satisfied with the performance of the defense thus far.
“I think we’d all want a shutout, if they could, every time they go out,” Sarkisian said Thursday night. “I think the biggest thing we’ve got to get is our mindset back. I think we’re kind of wondering a little too much, in my opinion, at the line of scrimmage instead of playing really fast, furious defense.”
Two UW starters are in danger of missing Saturday’s game against Arizona State because of health concerns. Starting guard Erik Kohler (flu) and defensive end/tackle Cameron Elisara (stinger) are questionable for the game. De’Shon Matthews would likely get the start if Elisara can’t go, while Gregory Christine is the favorite to start at guard if Kohler’s out. Even if Kohler is available, Sarkisian said, he probably would not be able to play the whole game. … Forecasts for Saturday night include the possibility of rain, which is just fine with Sarkisian. “We don’t mind if it gets a little cool and gets a little wet,” he said Thursday.