By Scott M. Johnson Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Nick Holt had three years to prove his mettle. Three, long years of baby steps, and there were Saturdays when his defenses at the University of Washington seemed to go from adolescence right back to infancy in a flash of light.
For Justin Wilcox, the Huskies’ latest defensive coordinator in a long line of Jim Lambright successors, it took just four games.
Thursday night was not just the signature win that has eluded this program since the 2010 Holiday Bowl, but it also served as undeniable proof that the Wilcox hire was worth its weight.
This was the same Stanford team that piled up 1,000 rushing yards in its last three meetings with UW — all blowout wins by the Cardinal. The same nationally-ranked program that piled up 65 points on the Huskies less than a year ago.
Just seven months into Wilcox’s tenure, UW’s defense solved the Stanford problem and turned in its finest performance of the Sarkisian era.
“This was probably the best defensive game I’ve played since I’ve been here,” senior cornerback Desmond Trufant said after UW’s 17-13 upset of the eighth-ranked Cardinal on Thursday night.
These Huskies, having been torched by Stanford for each of head coach Steve Sarkisian’s first three years at UW, finally slayed the dragon Thursday night. And the man who handed out all the swords was an unassuming 35-year-old who used to spend Saturday afternoons trying to knock down Huskies as a member of the Oregon State secondary.
Wilcox came to UW after spending two seasons as a defensive coordinator at Tennessee, and it was hard to imagine the up-and-coming assistant taking on a more daunting task. The Huskies were coming off a historically poor performance in the 2011 Alamo Bowl, in which they gave up 777 yards to Baylor in a 67-56 loss. Most of those same players were back, and Wilcox didn’t have a lot of time to get them up to speed if the 2012 Huskies were going to be a serious contender.
All it took was the Pacific-12 Conference opener to prove that Wilcox was up for the task.
After Thursday’s win, Sarkisian was quick to push credit to a defensive staff that has turned this unit from stray dogs to proud Dawgs in a matter of months.
“Our kids are believing,” Sarkisian said. “That’s one of the biggest keys. Everyone knows X’s and O’s, and our (assistants) are really bright. But they get the kids to believe, they’re excellent teachers, they communicate well, and at the end of the day, the guys are doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Sarkisian said that one of his favorite moments of the game came when defensive assistant Tosh Lupoi and a couple defensive players were encouraging the offense to pick it up. That’s quite a switch from where this program was just a few months ago, when a high-octane offense was begging the UW defense to make a stop.
“It’s a different year,” said Trufant, who intercepted a fourth-down pass on Stanford’s final drive to clinch Thursday night’s win. “Different players, different coaches — it’s a different team.”
Sophomore defensive end Josh Shirley, who forced a fumble in Thursday night’s win and has been a completely different player under the new staff this season, said the Huskies bought in to what Wilcox was selling from the very start.
“You have to believe,” he said, “because we are one. These were the cards we were dealt.”
That Thursday night would be a different kind of Stanford game was apparent from the very start, when UW held the Cardinal to a three-and-out on the opening possession. By halftime, the Huskies had given up just 152 yards, six first downs and were hanging tough despite a struggling UW offense.
Two quarters later, having weathered the storm of an interception-return touchdown that gave Stanford a 13-3 lead late in the third quarter, the Huskies had emerged with an improbable victory while holding the Cardinal to 65 rushing yards and 10 first downs.
“It’s not surprising,” Wilcox said. “We need to enjoy the win, but we need to expect to play well like that.”
Middle linebacker Thomas Tutogi said the UW defense made a statement on Thursday night, when a national television audience watched the Huskies swarm on their Goliath for 60 minutes of football.
“We showed people we’re worthy,” Tutogi said afterward. “We’re pretty good.”
When Shirley was asked what the defense proved on Thursday night, he said: “We came to play.”
That couldn’t always be said for the 2011 defense, or the ones that preceded it.
“We’re here now,” Shirley said with a shrug. “All I know is what happens here, what happens now.”
What happed Thursday night was that the UW defense grew up. And they have a 35-year-old magician to thank for it.