SEATTLE – When the 104th Apple Cup kicks off today, there won’t be a more scrutinized unit on either side than the Washington defense.
The Huskies began the year by giving up a quick touchdown drive to Eastern Washington.
Last week, they allowed a 99-yard scoring march late in their defeat against Oregon State.
In between, there has been lots of the same, touchdowns and yards piling up with a regularity that has increasingly caused UW fans to throw their hands in the air and has threatened to take the shine off the rebuilding project of coach Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian, in his third year at Washington, summed up the feelings of Husky nation this season with this brief summation of the UW defensive effort last week at Oregon State.
“Frustrating,” he said. “Frustrating. Numerous missed tackles and the inability to get off the field on third down was extremely, extremely frustrating.”
How bad is it?
Before going further, a brief look at the numbers is in order to answer one of the questions most uttered by UW fans: Is this really one of the worst defenses in school history?
Through 11 games – and with just two now remaining that aren’t likely to skew the numbers a whole lot in either direction – the answer is “pretty much.”
Washington is allowing 34.5 points a game, the second highest in school history behind only the 38.5 allowed by the 2008 team that went 0-12 and prompted the firing of Sarkisian’s predecessor, Tyrone Willingham. It’s also allowing 430.4 yards per game, third most in school history behind 2008 (451.8) and 2007 (446.4).
The Huskies have been beaten most often through the air, allowing 278.3 yards a game, which is on pace to be the highest in their history (the record is 275.7 in 2005).
Why has it been so bad?
Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt generally point to a mixture of injuries and inexperience.
Injuries are a reality of college football, and few teams are able to roll out the same lineup game after game. Six of UW’s 11 regular defensive starters have been available for every game, and the Huskies have lost just one starter for the season – defensive end Hau’oli Jamora with a knee injury in the fourth game against California.
Jamora was one of the team’s most valuable players, however, as the best pass rusher on a unit that has struggled to get sacks all season. UW ranks ninth in the Pac-12 with 17 sacks, on pace to lag far behind the 28 of 2010.
Asked to pinpoint the major defensive failing, coaches usually target the pass rush. Sarkisian said it was the major reason Oregon State was able to convert 10 of 16 third- or fourth-down plays last week. Washington is allowing a Pac-12-high 50 percent conversion rate on third down, maybe the most telling number about what is ailing the Huskies defense.
Washington also has had minor injuries causing players such as cornerback Quinton Richardson and tackle Alameda Ta’amu – each senior leaders – to be limited at times this season.
Sarkisian’s staff has had just two full recruiting classes to try to replenish the defense – which, as noted in the numbers above, was historically bad in the last few years of the Willingham era. And that has meant Sarkisian and his staff have tried to rebuild the program relying on young players, such as starting linebackers John Timu (true freshman) and Princeton Fuimaono (sophomore).
On his radio show, Sarkisian said all that’s needed is a little patience.
“In those same spots right now we are playing with some young, talented guys who just aren’t there yet,” he said. “I think in two or three years they will be there, but it’s a transformation of a program.”
With each game, the anger on fan boards and radio shows has increasingly been unleashed on Holt, who came to UW along with Sarkisian.
Some have wondered if Sarkisian will consider making a change at coordinator, as Willingham did after his third season in 2007, when he fired Kent Baer and brought in Ed Donatell.
Sarkisian, though, has publicly expressed support for Holt at every turn, and has said that any big-picture evaluation of the defense wouldn’t come until after the season.
And he said on his radio show that he has no worries that a turnaround will eventually arrive for the defense.
“They are fighting the fight and they will get better and I’m not as concerned about that – we’re getting better,” he said. “I just don’t want us to get desperate and try to go on to some brand-new defensive scheme.”