Getting Defensive

Why is the Husky defense getting abused? It keeps getting dropped like a fat cow from a helicopter. Watching it at times is like passing a kidney stone – it's painful and should only be done with the help of major sedatives. It's not time to panic, but clearly some issues need to be resolved.

After three games, the Husky defense has given up 72 first downs! SEVENTY TWO. En route to moving the chains nearly at will, opposing offenses have gained 1,356 yards on a whopping 229 plays. That equates to nearly six yards per play. Washington has fielded just seven punts in those contests.

Washington, by contrast, has had a very solid three games on offense, yet they have had to punt 13 times and have converted 56 first downs and averaging a very respectable 380 yards per game.

Those offensive numbers are good enough to win a lot of football games. And to be fair, the Huskies did win two of their first three games.

But the question remains. "Why is the Husky defense getting abused?"

Eastern Washington, Hawaii, and Nebraska combined to convert 57% of their third down attempts and scored 14 touchdowns in those games. If a team is going to give up nearly five touchdowns per contest, you are asking a great deal of your offense.

That wasn't supposed to be the formula. This year was the year the defense was going to carry the offense. The depth up front on the line was going to make life easier for the young linebackers, and the experience at corner and at safety was going to allow more aggressive types of pass defense.

In a nutshell, the optimal scenario would've seen a stingy defense give an offense with a sophomore first-year starting quarterback some breathing room, and time to grow into their new system.

That is a complete ‘Bizzaro Superman reality from what has transpired thus far. The offense with the young green quarterback is carrying the load, and it's not even close.

So what's going on?

I'm not looking to blame anyone, that is better left to the denizens on the message board who feel the need to point the blame finger when they're angry or feel they are entitled to an explanation. And that's human nature.

But this article is more to try to point out some observations you can take or leave (just as any opinion deserves), and to hopefully pose some questions to debate. I'm looking at the Husky front seven, particularly.

First of all, why is the defensive line such a non-entity to this point? I can think of three reasons, in no particular order. Number one, Alameda Ta'amu is clearly hampered by his broken hand. He's playing with one hand essentially, and it is limiting his ability to get off blocks. He has turned from a potential all-Pac 12 performer to a serviceable lineman in his first three games. Teams still run away from him, but he is not really able to impact the game like he did in the Holiday Bowl. Everyone has seen that film and offensive coordinators are planning to not run the boneheaded pedestrian scheme that Nebraska did in that game. That being said, Ta'amu has to find a way to disrupt. Hopefully his cast comes off soon.

Number two, losing Tokolahi is being felt more than I anticipated. Danny Shelton is going to be a fine player but he is only 18 and learning and shouldn't be expected to be the franchise just yet. Larry Lagafuaina is limited in what he can do based on the skill set I see in him. He's effective in situational stuff, but so far the Huskies have faced some pass-happy teams, not Larry's best spot I'm afraid. Tokolahi was explosive – watch the Cal and WSU games last year. Shelton and Lagafuaina don't have his burst. Everette Thompson has been nullified inside thus far this year. And outside of Jamora, the other defensive end spot has been a crapshoot. Talia Crichton and Josh Shirley have been ineffective to date. It might be time to see what Andrew Hudson can do opposite Jamora.

Number three, I sort of addressed in number two above. The defensive line just looks like they are simply underperforming. They are either not being given the tools to succeed, or they are not executing those tools. I will leave it to you to debate whether it's coaching or whether the defensive linemen were overhyped during fall camp. It's never one thing, no matter how badly you'd like to neatly place the blame on a coach. That's just too easy.

On the linebacking corps, you've got a senior inside that is doing everything. However on either side of him you have two freshmen that are learning the hard way that Pac-12 football is way faster than high school football was. Princeton Fuimaono and John Timu are incredible athletes, and both can hit when they square up. However it is obvious that they are learning on the fly. It isn't fair to them, but it is what it is. They are the best at their positions in practice so they are earning their playing time. It might be time to see if Garret Gilliland might add a more stable presence in that unit. He isn't as athletic or as quick as the other two, but he seems to make plays when he's given the chance. Thomas Tutogi is big and physical, but not ready to step in for Cort, and that's too bad. If Tutogi could assimilate quicker and learn where he's supposed to go, it would allow him to move to a starting role and move Dennison over to WLB where he thrived last year. That would immediately make the Dawg LB corps more experienced. They'd lose some athleticism but they'd gain a lot of attack mentality because you'd have a guy in your glamour LB position that doesn't have to think. Cort just flies to the ball instinctively, as you'd expect a guy with as many snaps as he has under his belt.

However, and I cannot stress this enough. There is no substitute for live snaps in a football game. Every former player I've ever talked to said that until you get about 300 live snaps under your belt, you're not really an upperclassmen, no matter what the yearbook says. You can be the best practice player in the world but practice only prepares you so much for what you are going to face from an opponent. You can learn your schemes and reads, but it's how you react to the nuances that the opponent throws at you in a game that you didn't see on film is what dictates how successful you are. Opponent's offenses aren't going to act like you think; they are going to do what they do. And as a defender, how you react to that is going to either keep the play to a minimum gain or have it explode into a 70-yard touchdown. Guys with more snaps under their belts are more likely to react in positive fashion because they've done it before.

I will say that of all of the defensive coaches, Mike Cox has earned the highest marks from me. He does a nice job with such a young LB corps. Hopefully he can get Cort Dennison through the season somehow, because as much as Cort is trying to do, he is getting beat up. He had ice on his entire body after the Nebraska game. He is giving it his all, but he can't do it alone.

So how to fix this mess that we've witnessed over the first three games? It clearly falls on the defensive coordinator. No one knows this more than Nick Holt. He surely isn't happy about what has transpired. Based on some of the looks Sarkisian gave him during the game, I'd say it's fair to say the head coach isn't going to stand for much more of what we've seen.

The California game on Saturday is going to be a bellwether game in my opinion. The team is 2-1 heading into their conference opener against a team that is very beatable. If the Huskies can earn a win, the defense should gain some badly needed confidence. Washington needs to make some adjustments to their defense in order for this to happen. It will be an interesting week of practice. I think you may see one or two personnel changes, and I also think you may see a couple of new schemes designed to harass a Cal quarterback that will not be soon mistaken for Aaron Rodgers. Top Stories