By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SEATTLE — For Husky fans, games like Saturday night in Tucson were supposed to be a thing of the all too frustrating past.
With a revamped defensive coaching staff led by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, the much maligned Washington defense had seemed to quell doubters with better than expected play in its first seven games.
Of all that has gone wrong early in this season, the defense seemed to be the least of the Huskies’ problems. In fact in UW’s three wins, and even in a few defeats, the defense was more than credible and often seemed like a strength.
But then came the disappointment in the desert. The Arizona Wildcats made the new look Washington defense look a lot like last year’s defense in a 52-17 loss.
“It was obviously a disappointing game in a lot of areas,” Wilcox said. “We didn’t finish very many plays and we gave up some runs and passes because of either eye discipline or not making tackles. Our alignment and assignment was good, for the most part. It was the execution that was very disappointing.”
And the first finger of blame pointed by Wilcox was directly at himself. There would be no Nick Holt-like admonishments of his players.
“I’ve got to do a better job of preparing us,” he said bluntly. “Each one of us, coaches and players — need to look in the mirror and make sure we’re doing everything we can possibly do during the week and on game day to make sure we have our best chance to win.”
Arizona rolled up 533 yards of total offense, averaged 18.3 yards per pass completion and 5.7 yards per rush and never was forced to punt.
What went wrong?
“We missed 19 tackles in that game, which is by far the most this season,” Wilcox said. “When you do that, no matter what front coverage you play, it’s going to be hard to stop anybody.”
And there were a few blown coverages that led directly to touchdown passes from Arizona quarterback Matt Scott.
“It was more just self-inflicted wounds,” said UW safety Sean Parker. “We worked all day in practice about it. Everything that happened in the game, we had seen it before. It was just frustrating because we shot ourselves in the foot. It was nothing they did.”
Of the seven Huskies games this season, the defensive issues and mistakes against Arizona were most similar to those that occurred in the 52-21 loss at Oregon. Besides both games being played on the road, the other similarity was the up-tempo, spread-option style both teams employ.
“It’s shown up in two games where teams have put us in one-on-one situations,” Wilcox said. “When we get in one-on-ones, some of the pressure is going to be on somebody. Because when you play those teams where the spread zone read and the bubbles (screens), coverage-wise there’s times where you’re going to be one-on-one and in the run game you’re going to be one-on-one at times.”
It’s the whole basis behind the philosophy of that offense — put defenders in one-on-one situations where they have to make a play. If they don’t it’s usually a healthy gain.
“When those opportunities come up, we’ve got to execute and make the play, no matter if it’s tackling, knocking a ball down, affecting the quarterback — whatever it is, we’ve got to finish those plays,” Wilcox said. “We didn’t do a good enough job obviously.”
But instead of completely laying the blame on the players as Holt — who was fired as the Huskies’ defensive coordinator following the 2011 season — did at times last year, Wilcox was adamant that it was something the coaches can teach and foster and grow.
“It’s practicing the right way,” he said. “But what it boils down to on game day is putting yourself in a state of mind and those situations — we’re going to win them. It’s repetition, it’s execution, it’s all those little details — it’s eye control and making sure you’re looking at the right things and not guessing. Those things, if you don’t do them, really show up negatively. If you do them, you’ve got a chance to make the play.”
The Huskies brought back increased one-on-one drills and even more contact drills on Tuesday as part of that process. While the fundamentals are always focused on, there were a few added drills designed to be competitive and feature player vs. player individual battles.
“It’s everything,” Parker said of the competitive mindset in those situations. “It’s pride, competitiveness, just a passion for the game, just to beat the man in front of you and not let him do what he wants to do. Make him beat you with his ability, make him beat you.”
The Huskies defense gets a bit of a break since this week’s opponent — Oregon State — plays a little more traditional offense. But it’s far from a guarantee for success.
“They are a very good football team,” Wilcox said. “They have matchup problems here and there too. There’s going to be times in this game where we’re going to have to win some one-on-ones.”
Can the Huskies do that? It will likely be the key to pulling off the upset.
“That’s all we got to do, and we’ll be fine against Oregon State,” Parker said.