Kragthorpe: Husky defense is Pac-12's big story, for now
This is a risk/reward subject, because nothing seems to last in the Pac-12.
USC's offense appeared unstoppable, until the Trojans were stymied by Stanford. Oregon State's defense looked vastly improved, before the Beavers were dragged to the finish by Arizona.
So there's danger in pronouncing Washington's defense cured, especially considering what's ahead beginning with Saturday's game at Oregon and continuing with USC, Arizona and Oregon State this month. Yet the Huskies' turnaround is remarkable. That's true not only from last season to this season, but from Sept. 8 to Sept. 27.
The defense that held Stanford to 65 rushing yards and 235 total yards in a 17-13 upset last week is the same group that allowed 242 rushing yards and 437 total yards to LSU in a 41-3 loss in the Huskies' second game of the season.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was a picture of dejection and disgust that night, but the Huskies looked completely different against Stanford, another team with designs of running over Washington. Wilcox surprised the Cardinal with a new alignment, but there was more to it than X's and O's. "They did a great job, and it wasn't just the scheme," said Stanford coach Davis Shaw. "It was just the fact that we had to block them, and we didn't block very well."
Wilcox was hired from the Tennessee staff following the Huskies' disaster in the Alamo Bowl. Robert Griffin III's Baylor offense racked up 777 yards and 65 points, forcing UW coach Steve Sarkisian to fire Nick Holt.
Through four games, the No. 23-ranked Huskies (3-1) have gone from 11th in the Pac-12 and 106th in the country in total defense last season to second in the conference and 21st nationally, allowing 315.0 yards. That figure is aided by a game against Portland State. Then again, Stanford also lowered the Huskies' average.
Sarkisian credits Wilcox for coming to Seattle with "an open mind," assessing the players he inherited and designing a scheme to fit them. The Huskies have responded to Wilcox's teaching and motivating ability, and Sarkisian has authorized more tackling in practice.
Wilcox's approach is to get the Huskies' best 11 players on the field, using some hybrid athletes in various positions. The linebackers, notably Thomas Tutogi and John Timu, are productive and freshman Shaq Thompson, a safety who was a touted recruit, is lining up in different spots and making plays all over the field.
Wilcox likes his defense's progress, but he told Seattle-area reporters Tuesday, "Nobody in our building is sitting around saying, 'Oh, man, we've got this figured out.' "
That's because the Huskies are facing Oregon. Having gone against the Ducks while coaching at Boise State and Tennessee, Wilcox was asked if Oregon appears faster now. His response: "Warp and mach. What's faster?"
The UW defenders will get an up-close look at the Ducks this weekend, and we'll find out how much they've improved.
Based on the Stanford measurement, they're dramatically better. The Cardinal rushed for 446 yards against Washington in 2011 and managed only 15 percent of that total last week. Oregon ran for 212 yards last November in a 34-17 win.