Defensive matchups for Washington

How does Washington stack up defensively tomorrow night? Charles Babb takes a look.

With game time just around the corner, Buckeye fans might be wondering what their offense is going to be facing Saturday night.

To be perfectly blunt, I am not certain anyone knows for sure. Because of defensive weaknesses over the last several seasons, Rick Neuheisel hired Phil Snow as a new defensive coordinator. That means that the Husky defense, which allowed 26.3 points per game in 2002, might look completely different when the whistle is blown on the 30th. Or, Snow might simply add a few new wrinkles while still using the same base formations.

Here are the positions and a short break down of each one with a wrap up to conclude the examination of the Husky defense.

Defensive line: Last year, this unit allowed only 2.8 yards per rush and hopes to improve on that figure this season. The difficulty here is assessing whether or not that 2.8 was a phantom number that reflected the lack of solid running games in the Pac Ten or a statistic that shows the stoutness of the Husky front. Unfortunately for them, before fall camp even picked up steam, the Huskies lost starting DT Josh Miller and backup Junior Coffin. Expected to be a strength for this season because of the depth, this unit went from returning 6 of 8 in the rotation (three starters back) last season to only 4 of 8 (two returning starters) within a matter of days. Currently, the starting Washington front four stack up as Dan Milstein (6'5" 275), Jerome Stevens (6'3" 295), Terry Johnson (6'4" 285), and Manes Hopoi (6'4" 265). In Terry Johnson and Manase Hopoi, Washington returns a DT and DE combo that accounted for 12 sacks and have solid size.

Washington must concern itself with several items. First, those Huskies that are starting are not all healthy. Milstein has been nicked during camp as has the backup for Jerome Stevens, Tui Alailefaleuta (I dare you to say that name five times quickly). A lineman playing at less than 100% is like having blood in the water for a cage full of sharks. The Ohio State offense will try and sniff the poor sap out and attack them while they hopelessly thrash about. Second, they need to look at their size. At 275, 295, 285, and 265 they will be facing an uphill battle against the Ohio State offensive line. While this is typical for most D-lines (including that of Ohio State), it is also true that Washington has lost considerable depth. That means there might be less available bodies to rotate if the Buckeyes opt to pound on that defensive front until it tires. Third, Washington lacks a true speed defensive end coming off of the edge. This could force the Huskies to bring extra personnel to the line of scrimmage in the hope that Ohio State cannot pick them up. Bringing extra personnel is always risky because if by chance the Buckeyes sniff out where the pressure will be coming from, it might result in big plays for the Scarlet and Gray.

Advantage: OSU Offensive Line

Linebackers: The strength of the defense is expected to be at the linebacker position. Seniors Marquis Cooper and Greg Carothers are both athletic and strong. Though undersized at 6'4", 215, Cooper is a serious ball player at the MLB slot with 4.4 speed and a nose for the football. He had 100 tackles, 3 sacks, and 10 tackles for loss in only 11 games in 2002. Carothers, who played strong safety last season, had 84 tackles, 1 sack, and 7 tackles for loss, and as Ohio State fans know – a former safety at linebacker can be a real advantage. The only newcomer (if you can term him that) is Joe Lobendahm, a 5'10, 225 junior. Joe started only two games in 2002 but ended his season with 23 tackles.

This is one of those situations where the irresistible force is about to meet the immovable object. Which will win? If Washington is to emerge victorious, the Huskies must stop the Ohio State running game. To do that, their linebackers have to pursue the ball carrier and plug any gaps that open in the line. They must be able to shed blockers (read: fullbacks and tight ends) coming out of the backfield and make the tackle. They must force Ohio State to try and throw over their head by proving that the Buckeyes cannot run straight through them. Can it be done?

Advantage: Washington linebackers vs. OSU blockers

Defensive Backs: For starters, forget about the loss of Nate Robinson. Yes, he started multiple games down the stretch in 2002, but he did so only after Roc was injured. The problem for Neuheisel and the defense last season was a rash of injuries so pervasive that one would have thought Seattle was the new headquarters of the M.A.S.H. unit. This year they are back at full strength. Thus, although the Huskies officially return only two starters, unofficially every player in their first string has started multiple games in the past. For the record, the starters tomorrow night are expected to be Roc Alexander and Derrick Johnson at cornerback and Jimmy Newell and Evan Benjamin at the safety slots. Keep an eye on Roc and Derrick. Derrick is considered one of the top four cornerbacks in the Pac Ten, and Alexander is no slouch.

Advantage: Ohio State Wide Receivers by a nose

Coaching: Phil Snow was brought on board to shape up the defense, and do not be surprised if he does just that. Ohio State fans should remember him as the mastermind of the UCLA team that stymied the Buckeyes to the tune of a 13-7 showing in 2001. He also managed to slow the 1996 Ohio State offense to a snail's pace and almost eke out a victory as the defensive coordinator of Arizona State. Meanwhile, Tim Hundley, last season's defensive coordinator will share the position and provide knowledge of the capabilities of the players. Randy Hart is the defensive line coach (a 15 year vet at this position) responsible for one of the greatest defensive lines in recent memory as a coach on the 1991 Washington Huskies national championship team. How good was that defense? Only three of the eleven teams that group faced did not lose their starting quarterback to injury during their matchups. Cornell Jackson has moved from coaching the linebackers in 2002 to tutoring the safeties and the kickoff coverage.

The main man to watch here is Phil Snow. Phil was clearly brought in to solidify the defense and make changes where needed. Where Hundley's team played more of a read and react scheme that sometimes had only three down linemen, Snow has historically attacked the offense. In the two times he has faced OSU, his players have held the Buckeyes to point totals well below their average by pressuring the quarterback and forcing bad decisions.

How it all fits together:

Generally, games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. I believe this game will be no different. The advantage that Ohio State must capitalize upon is the loss of depth, talent, and experience Washington has suffered on their defensive line. If the Buckeyes do this, then they will cram the football down Washington's throat no matter how good the linebackers are. This in turn will force Snow to move his safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and leave his cornerbacks in single coverage on the Ohio State wide receivers. Craig Krenzel and his crew will likely make them pay for such a move. Either that, or a repeat of the 2001 Michigan game is possible. When too many men crowd the line of scrimmage and a running back does squeak through, it results in large yards.

Advantage: Ohio State offense

Who will win?

Ultimately, I think that Gilbertson and Snow will turn the ship around in Seattle. Both are fine coaches, and they will have the support of their fans and alumni. Washington has one of the highest attendance averages in the Pac Ten and is historically a tough, hard-nosed team. The problem is that it will take longer to turn this ship around than just one game. Instilling toughness and the ability to rush the football at will takes time and patience.

Ohio State, at home, under the lights, on opening night – wins this game by a score of 34-22. Washington goes home, regroups, and makes a run at the Pac Ten title.

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