SEATTLE — Pete Kwiatkowski is quiet and unassuming. He enjoys remaining in the background, his role being that of a teacher and planner as the defensive coordinator for No. 9 Washington.
His players, though, view him a little bit differently as the one largely responsible for Washington fielding the best defense in the country.
“I think he’s kind of a little bit of an evil genius,” linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said. “He spends so much time in the film room seeing what they’re doing and every week he comes out with some new scheme we haven’t seen, some little tweak we’re going to do that gives us an edge you’re not going to get from another coach.”
When Washington takes the field Friday night at Stanford, it will do so with the best defense in the country in terms of yards allowed per game. Better than Alabama. Better than Georgia. Better than Wisconsin. The Huskies are allowing 240.9 yards per game and 11.1 points. At this pace, this group of Huskies may end up being better statistically than the 1991 team that shared the national championship and is regarded as the best defense in school history — and one of the best in Pac-12 history.
That’s heady company, although this defense’s biggest tests — Stanford, Washington State in the Apple Cup and a potential Pac-12 title game — are still looming.
“We’re a big believer in, football’s not that complicated. There’s a lot of nuance and detail that goes into what we do, but at the end of the day it’s about striking blocks, getting off blocks, tackling, covering,” Kwiatkowski said. “We try to keep it that simple with our guys so they can play fast. And then the carry over schematically — we have some changeups here and there so offenses can’t dial us up. But at the end of the day, it’s fundamental football.”
What makes Washington’s defensive success remarkable is what the team has lost over the years.
After Kwiatkowski’s first season, the Huskies saw four defensive players taken in the first 44 picks of the NFL draft. And they were better the following season.
Last season, Washington had three defensive backs taken in the first 43 picks. And the Huskies so far are a better pass defense than last season.
The cycle is likely to play out again after this season with the likes of Vita Vea, Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria all potential early-round picks.
“It’s a great group. It’s fun to come to work. It’s fun to practice,” Kwiatkowski said. “These guys, they’re all ears. They play hard. They practice hard.”
In four seasons, Kwiatkowski has built a defense that is stingy, aggressive and refuses to give up big plays. Granted, it’s helped that Washington has not faced the most dynamic offenses this year. Of their nine opponents to date, only UCLA ranks in the Top 40 nationally and the Bruins are the only team to top 20 points against Washington, although that came with the help of a defensive score.
While the Huskies top the country in total defense, they are also second in scoring defense, third in pass defense and sixth at stopping the run. They’ve allowed just eight offensive touchdowns in nine games and have yet to allow an offensive play of longer than 36 yards.
Now consider where Washington was defensively just six years ago. During the 2011 season — when the Huskies went 7-6 — they allowed at least 23 points in 12 of 13 games, including surrendering 51 to Nebraska, 65 to Stanford and 67 to Baylor. That’s 183 points in three games; the Huskies have allowed 100 points in nine games this season.
“If you’re going to have a good team, to me it’s always going to start out on defense,” head coach Chris Petersen said. “We’ve had good defenses for a long, long time.”