Why and How UW's Defense is Getting Better

Football has no style points. It doesn't matter how many first downs you give up, how many points you give up, or how many yards you give up; it's all about the actual points, and simply ending the game with at least one more than your opponent. Anyone who has watched the first third of the Huskies' season realizes they are pretty good on offense but a little too giving on defense.

In fact, at the statistical rate they're going they may end up as one of the worst Husky defenses ever. Who cares! They're 3-1 on the season and undefeated in conference play.

They have also won three out of four times in the kicking game, and by no coincidence lost the only game in which they were outplayed in the kicking phase of the game. They have shown noticeable improvement on defense but no doubt will gladly take another ugly win over Utah.

Now the Huskies take their show on the road in search of one of those elusive wins in someone else's stadium. Going into this weekend's match-up at Utah, the Huskies are a one-touchdown underdog and that is not surprising considering every visitor in the Pac-12 is currently considered to be the 'dog this coming weekend.

Going into the California game, the Husky defense ranked last in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 36 points per game. They were 11th in total defense, and last in passing defense. Conversely, Cal was first in total defense and second in rushing defense. Cal was averaging 456 yards per game and got 457 yards against Washington, but still lost the game. Cal was averaging 45 points going in but only scored three points in the second half against the Huskies and 23 for the game - or roughly half their average. It was the scoring defense of the Huskies - forcing three field goals instead of touchdowns - that essentially won the game. Of course the Huskies won the fourth quarter battle again like they did against Nebraska, but this time they also won the war.

Against California, the defense essentially won the game with a goal line stand at the very end. Leading by only eight points, the defense faced a first and goal on their two-yard line. Somehow they held and, on fourth down the Bears went to the well one time too many and their pass to Keenan Allen fell incomplete. Allen had already caught 10 passes for 197 yards and a 90-yard touchdown, but this one was defended well by Quinton Richardson and the Husky defense had held. It was a classic goal-line stand to win the ball game.

Earlier in the season, the defense had also won their first game with an interception by Desmond Trufant right at the end. Both times the opponent was threatening to score and both times the Husky defense stopped them from doing so. They have also been forcing teams to kick field goals in all their games instead of scoring touchdowns. Those stops have proven crucial to all three wins.

In the statistical category of red-zone defense, the Huskies rank a dismal tenth in the conference, but upon closer analysis you see that they have forced opponents to try a league high seven field goals (the next highest is five). Those are still considered stops and reflect one of the real positives about this Husky defense.

What they do well is that they tighten up the closer their backs get to their own goal line. As the field shrinks the Husky defense only gets better, and it's been like that for the past few years. That is reason number one why they are winning with this defense in spite of what they are giving up.

They are also getting better because with each game they are adjusting to game speed and therefore tackling better. Because of experience, they are also improving on their reads and reactions and are faster to fill, fold, and play with leverage and contain, particularly in stopping the run. These are all principles of fundamental team defense. They are also getting off blocks better and as a group seem determined to stop the run, which they have effectively done in every game except Nebraska. They learned from that game and held Cal, a team rushing for 178 per game, to 108. They won the ground game, and just like they did against Eastern Washington and Hawaii, they forced field goals instead of touchdowns. Nebraska ran for 309 yards and Cal ran for roughly 200 less.

The Huskies have played primarily in a cover-2 shell and have surrendered lots of yards by trying to keep the opponents' passing games in check by forcing underneath throws and then trying to sure-tackle the receivers. Unfortunately, they played two wide open passing teams to start the season and both took advantage of the Huskies' soft zones, and consequently ran up lots of passing yardage. Every time they got closer to the Huskies' goal, the going got tougher. Many times they had to settle for a field goal. Those are STOPS, and that's what defensive football is all about. You need to get stops at critical times in the game.

Any time you force the opponent to punt you've gotten a stop. Every time you have a takeaway, like a fumble or interception, you've gotten a major stop. Every time you win on a fourth-down play, you've gotten a major stop.

What has been happening to Washington's defense this year is that they have been giving away big chunks of yardage between the 25-yard lines. From the 25 on in they have been pretty stingy. That has been their strength, and they must continue to be strong when backed up. Somehow or some way, they need to get stops earlier, and that puts the ball back in their own offense's hand with better field position.

The Huskies improved tremendously on third down defense versus Nebraska and California, holding the 'Huskers and Bears to a combined 10 of 29. Those are stops.

The Husky defense seemed to be on their heels to open the second half when Cal took the ball at their own 12-yard line and proceeded to drive all the way to the Huskies' 8. Thirteen plays for 80 yards to start the second half reminded me immediately of what Nebraska did to start the second half of that game when they drove for a touchdown to take a 27-17 lead and make it a two score game. This time it gave Cal a 23-21 lead. Immediately following though, the Huskies answered.

One of the most important things to consider in "playing the score" is to answer. When your opponent scores you need to come right back and answer - or score yourself - and the Huskies did that twice in this game against Cal. Following Cal's conversion of their second half field goal with 7:03 to go in that quarter the Husky offense not only answered, but the Husky defense shut the out the Bears for the remainder of the game. The offense and defense tend to feed off of each other, and that was obvious in the Cal game.

I'm not even trying to imply that the Huskies are good on defense because they still have a long way to go, but they are getting stops and they are getting the ball back and they are getting off the field when they are backed up. They are improving as a unit, even if a cursory glance at some statistics doesn't indicate it.

I think that too many fans pay too much attention to statistical details and rankings. Statistics are simply too subjective to be true indicators of success. Winning games is the only true indicator of success.

It also has to be obvious that Cal playing Presbyterian the week before they came to Seattle did a lot less to prepare them for Washington than what Nebraska did for the Huskies in preparing them for the Bears. The Huskies prepared to stop the run after learning from their mistakes versus the Cornhuskers. Cal did not get on the edges with any regularity and only averaged 3.3 yards per rushing attempt, whereas Nebraska averaged 5.6. That is a big difference and another reason why they improved.

The Huskies on defense were also playing more bodies, and that will continue to help them by keeping the starters fresher for the fourth quarter. Now some of the substitutions were due to injuries, but up front they played Danny Shelton, Sione Potoae, Lawrence Lagafuaina, Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson for their most extended playing time of the season. That game experience is invaluable for a defense that is so young in its depth. Jamaal Kearse also played his first snaps on defense at linebacker and was part of key stops during the final goal-line stand. Anthony Gobern also came off the bench to help on the corner and earned some important playing time. This game action will only make the Husky defense better.

With the youngsters entering the picture it will also help the starters to improve their play by going harder when they are on the field. Alameda Ta'amu is arguably one of the best players on the Husky defense, but he only had one assist in the whole Cal game. By resting him more, his production should go up. He is overdue to become the force that everyone expected him to be.

Overall, the Husky defense is playing better simply because they are tackling better. Sure they are still giving up big chunks of yardage, but they are toughening up when they have to and now need to go back to creating turnovers. This is the one area of defense where Washington really needs to concentrate and improve on. Turnovers take the home crowd out of the game and most just don't happen; they are forced to happen. Turnovers have such a radical effect on field position and if the Huskies can produce 3-plus turnovers in this game with Utah then they will really help their chances of winning.

The Huskies are gradually getting better on defense and now need to take a big leap forward and play their best game of the season to beat Utah in Salt Lake City. Now they need to rush the quarterback better and continue to stop the run like they did against Cal. Do those two things, win the turnover battle, continue to tackle well and they can pull off this upset and get their first road win of the year.


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