Monday Night Musings

Washington was staring at a recipe for disaster Saturday as they faced Illinois. They were missing their top two cornerbacks, both of them starters in a secondary that had been torched the first two games.

Marcus Peters, without a doubt the most talented and experienced defensive back, sat out the game as a disciplinary measure to address his outburst on the sideline after being lifted from the game against Eastern Washington.

Jermaine Kelly, though green and mistake prone, was expected to improve and lock down the other side of the field but he was not available after being felled by injury during the week. So both were scratches.

Peters is expected back this week versus Georgia State and Kelly had surgery Monday to repair a fractured ankle. Speculation is that the redshirt frosh will miss the rest of the year.

Enter true freshman Sidney Jones.

Jones’s highlight tape was one of the more impressive ones to me when I was scouting the class back in February, so it didn’t come as a huge surprise that he wound up being one of the players that would forego his redshirt season. He looks very smooth already in his backpedal and his reaction time and quickness with the ball in the air looks pretty advanced for an 18-year old.

Jones stepped into his first start versus Illinois and did a very nice job. He had three sure tackles, and never looked all that lost. Other freshmen that played included John Gardenhire and Naijiel Hale. Both have great potential, but Jones looks more like he belongs at this point. He’s very fluid.

On the other side stepped in Travell Dixon, a player who had not earned the trust of Steve Sarkisian’s defensive staff last year. Dixon’s propensity to peek into the backfield and get beaten over the top was seen as a liability, so he was buried on the bench. A lack of experienced options on Saturday meant Dixon got a start, and while he was victimized for two touchdowns against Illinois he did show flashes of talent and decent run support skills. His length helps on the outside.

So how was it that the Huskies were able to make such a huge step on defense in week three against what (on paper) seemed a more challenging opponent? Three things I saw contributed to that:

  • Hau'oli Kikaha is nearly unblockable when he’s one on one. It was clear that Illinois was not going to let Danny Shelton collapse the 1, 2, or 3 gaps with the consistency he’d done in the first two contests, so they made sure that number 55 had two to three guys hitting him nearly every play. The results spoke volumes. Shelton was held to three tackles , while Kikaha had six stops, including 3.5 behind the line of scrimmage and three sacks. He as a beast and was the prime beneficiary of the extra attention that Shelton commanded. It is the way that Pete Kwiatkowski envisioned his defensive scheme would work. It finally clicked in week three.

  • The pass rush was vastly improved this week. Part of this comes as a result of Wes Lunt not being as mobile as Vernon Adams. A guy that can keep plays alive with his legs is much more difficult to rush, but the pass rush was undeniably better on Saturday than it had been. The secondary and linebackers did a nice job of giving good looks and clogging the throwing lanes, and the defensive line did a great job of rushing at angles that took away any escape paths. Kikaha was incredible from the periphery, crashing the tackles and collapsing the pocket. He and Shelton are playing at an extremely high level now, and appear to be really grasping what Jeff Choate wants from his front four.

  • The linebackers looked much more comfortable this week. At times against Eastern, it was hard to fathom what the UW middle four were attempting to scheme. The spacing made their angles strange at the point (or lack thereof) of attack. This week they had things fitted much better from the get-go. John Timu and Travis Feeney looked a lot more locked in and ready for what unfolded in front of them. They were able to attack more and use their speed to close lanes. It makes things a lot easier for the secondary to stick with their guys when the underneath stuff is getting handled. The linebacking play was much improved this week.

  • Speaking of linebackers, how about Shaq Thompson? Good lord, that man turned the game around from his linebacker position. He dropped into coverage and turned in a pick-six that was a game changer. On Illinois’ first drive they looked like they were going to crease the Husky defense once again, but that interception changed everything. The defense fed off of it and the visitors blinked hard. When Andrew Hudson stripped Lunt of the ball on a scramble outside of the pocket early in the second quarter, Thompson was there to scoop the ball up and return it 52 yards for yet another defensive touchdown.

Game over.

It’s pretty evident that the defense took a HUGE step forward Saturday. They were all on the same page and they functioned much better as a unit. Kikaha, Shelton, and Thompson are going to get the lion’s share of the press, but it was a team effort that got it done against Illinois. The pass rush was effective, the linebackers were stout, and the secondary played smart and was only beaten twice over the top. All in all it was a great adjustment by the defense, and it showed Husky fans that this team is beginning to trust their coaches. The schemes worked. The results were there for all to see.

The coaches trusted their young secondary. Jones, Gardenhire, Hale, Kevin King, Budda Baker, Brandon Beaver and Trevor Walker, along with the senior Dixon all stepped into bigger roles and handled them pretty well. All showed that if the seven guys in front of them are getting their jobs done rushing the passer, stuffing the run, containing the sweeps, and staying in the passing lanes, the guys behind them can get the job done too.

This coming Saturday the Huskies get the weakest opponent on their non-conference schedule, and it might be coming at a good time. The defense could use one more dress rehearsal before Stanford comes to town the following week. The Cardinal will be the first real test, and if the defense can take yet another giant step forward this week, they should be ready for their Pac-12 opener. I realize that Kevin Hogan is a huge step up from Wes Lunt, but the Huskies have what appears to be an explosive offense with Cyler Miles at quarterback. If the defense does its job, the Huskies have more than a fighting chance with their offense.

Miles’s throws were much more comfortable and accurate this week. He showed nice touch on the few throws that needed to clear the linebackers, and his deep ball to John Ross was right on the money. He only really missed one throw I saw that left points on the table, and that was a scrambling throw across his body. Miles inflicts real damage when he gets outside the pocket; he is really good at keeping plays alive and very capable of gouging defenses with large gains. With a solid stable of running backs behind him that are proving to be productive, this Husky offense should keep the Dawgs in any contest.

It’s now up to the defense, and by the looks of things they are trending the right direction after week three. Top Stories