The last time the defense for the University of Washington football team took the field for a game, it provided a long-overdue breakout performance that showed the nation the Huskies might be for real.
That was 10 days ago. Tonight, an entirely different test will prove this unit’s mettle.
The second-ranked Oregon Ducks and their fast-paced, zone-read offense is next up for a UW defense that held nemesis Stanford without an offensive touchdown the last time out.
“All you have to do is just turn on the tape and realize what kind of a challenge Oregon presents,” UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “Nobody in our building is sitting around thinking: ‘Oh, man, we’ve got this thing figured out.’”
Tonight’s game certainly will test UW’s defense — look no further than the 42.4 points per game the Ducks have averaged during an eight-game winning streak in the rivalry — and yet the Huskies come in feeling as confident as they have in a long time. Holding the eighth-ranked team in the country to a measly 238 yards and 13 points will do that.
“We proved some things to ourselves that maybe, earlier in the season, we didn’t know,” senior linebacker Thomas Tutogi said. “We definitely gave some swag to ourselves.”
The Stanford game moved UW’s defense up to 21st in the nation in yards allowed per game (215.0) and 37th in points allowed per game (19.8).
“It was a big win for us, and our confidence level is boosted up sky high,” sophomore linebacker John Timu said. “That (Stanford game) was a great win for us. But we’ve got to move on. Oregon is a different team, as far as speed and tempo, and we’ve got to match it this week. We’ve got to be perfect.”
That might not be hyperbole when talking about this Oregon offense. The Ducks (5-0) have given UW defenders fits for the good part of a decade, and this year’s Oregon team ranks seventh in the country in yards per game (550.6).
Oregon’s big-play potential, stable of weapons led by De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner, and up-tempo pace that often wears down opponents have left defenses scrambling for answers. UW’s Wilcox admitted this week that he has been studying the Oregon offense for months, since about the time he was hired to replace Nick Holt as UW defensive coordinator in January.
“They’re obviously as fast a team as there is in the country,” he said Tuesday. “They score a lot of points; they score them in bunches. They run a bunch of plays, they play at an unbelievable tempo, so obviously it’s a big challenge for us.”
In recent years, the UW defense has been able to hang with Oregon into the third quarter of games, only to get blown out down the stretch. It would be a reason for hope, perhaps, except that the Ducks use that same formula against almost every opponent — as evidenced by last weekend’s 51-26 pull-away win over Washington State.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly said this week that offseason conditioning is a key component in his offense’s ability to run away from the competition.
“We practice at such a rate that the games are a lot slower for us than our practices are,” he said.
In last year’s matchup with Oregon, the Huskies closed to within a touchdown, 24-17, midway through the third quarter before the Ducks pulled away for a 34-17 win. That marked the first time UW has come within 20 points of Oregon since 2003, which is also the last time the Huskies beat the Ducks.
Timu admitted this week that the Huskies ran out of gas in last year’s game.
“It happened to us,” he said Tuesday morning. “But guys are a lot older now. We know what the tempo is, and we’ll be all right.”
Since last season, the Huskies have shuffled positions and created more depth, particularly at linebacker. A smaller, faster unit that seems more ready to match up with Oregon’s spread might also have the depth to hang for four quarters.
“I like our depth going into this week,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said earlier this week.
Nobody’s expecting the UW defense to turn in another 13-point performance that includes keeping the opposing offense out of the end zone for 60 minutes. That was 10 days ago, and the Huskies know that tonight’s game will be an entirely different challenge.
“Stanford was a big win, but we’ve erased that from our minds now,” sophomore defensive tackle Danny Shelton said. “We’re playing Oregon, and we know the fast team and the good team that they are. We’re basically starting all over, and we’re going to work our (tails) off.”