Sept. 20, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Hau'oli Jamora has a clear and succinct answer to what needs to improve on the Huskies' defense.
The defensive end's no-nonsense response following practice Tuesday matches the mood of Washington's defenders heading into Saturday's 12:30 p.m. Pac-12 opener for the 2-1 Huskies at home against 3-0 California (3-0) (ROOT Sports locally, Fox Sports Net nationally, the Washington IMG College radio network and here again on GoHuskies.com with the live game chat and exclusive access).
The Dawgs are barking at themselves for allowing 51 points last weekend at Nebraska, which pushed UW's season averages to 452 yards and 36.6 points allowed per game.
Jamora blew air through his lips and added, "I can only speak for myself. I can do better against the run and the pass."
He's really speaking for everyone.
At times this season, the Huskies have gotten caught out of position on plays they had discussed and rehearsed all week - such as the first play last weekend at Nebraska. A play-action pass and wide-open post route gained 50 yards and set up the touchdown that had UW down 7-0 on the road two plays into the game.
Other times, Washington's defenders have been in the right places but haven't attacked with the Huskies' characteristic aggressiveness, as if they have been unsure of what to do next. That hesitation has been most noticeable in the pass rush, when Dawgs have blitzed in unblocked but have been unable to get the quarterback before he throws - or to get close enough to affect the pass.
"Some of our guys just aren't playing as fast as they need to be," defensive coordinator Nick Holt said Tuesday, echoing what head coach Steve Sarkisian said a day earlier. "We need to get better. We need to play better. And we will."
The defense's struggles haven't all been of its own doing. Nebraska drove 56 yards or less in eight of their nine scoring drives last weekend. That was thanks to two turnovers by the Huskies' offense and multiple special-teams issues, including a pivotal, lost fumble at UW's own 1 on a third-quarter kickoff.
Having one yard as the margin of error to start drives isn't exactly conducive to having an aggressive and productive defense.
The good news: It's only September, and everything starts anew this week.
The beginning of the conference schedule means a clean start on the road to the Huskies' ultimate goal, a Pac-12 championship and first Rose Bowl appearance since the 2000 season.
"Right now, we need to find some playmakers, consistent playmakers. It will come," Holt said. "You know, it's after three games. We have gotten better, historically, through the season--which we will this year."
Indeed, this time last season, after Nebraska put up 56 points and 533 yards on Washington in Seattle, the Huskies were 1-2 and allowing 426 total yards per game through three games entering conference play.
The 2010 season ended with UW getting a more consistent pass rush. The Dawgs became more disciplined in their gap control along their defensive front to stop the run. And playmakers emerged all over the defense.
Washington held UCLA to 163 yards and seven points, Cal to 283 yards and 13 points, and Nebraska to 189 yards and seven points in winning December's Holiday Bowl. That four-game winning streak got to six before the Cornhuskers beat the Huskies last weekend.
So as good as quarterback Keith Price has been throwing on offense this season, the Huskies usually go as their defense goes.
"We've got to find some guys that are real explosive and playmakers. Just look at the guys we had last year and all the statistics and look at this year and we are missing some of those guys," Holt said, thinking of linebackers Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa and safety Nate Williams.
Some of 2010's playmakers are still here, including cornerback Desmond Trufant. The junior has been one of the stalwarts on defense this month. He saved the opening win over Eastern Washington with an interception in the end zone in the final minute. He forced a fumble that helped beat Hawaii. Then he recovered a fumble and blitzed in on Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to almost force another turnover last weekend.
"I love that guy," middle linebacker and co-captain Cort Dennison said, adding no Husky works or prepares harder than Trufant.
Quinton Richardson, the opposite corner, is still not back to full health following a high ankle sprain he sustained last month. Dennison's rugged play inside has often been neutralized by opponents spreading the field with four- and five-receiver formations.
Plus, the defense has been well-represented among the 16 Huskies that have made their major-college debuts this month. True freshman John Timu and sophomore Princeton Fuimaono, who had a sack at Nebraska, are first-time starters at outside linebacker. Same with sophomore safety Sean Parker.
Washington hopes to have Nate Fellner back this week from the hamstring injury that left him out at Nebraska. Justin Glenn started for the first time since the middle of the 2009 season in Fellner's place, and made a career-high 15 tackles against the Cornhuskers.
The facts that the leading tacklers in two of UW's three games have been in the secondary is indicative of the improvement the defense knows it needs, from front to back.
"We're just trying to get after it, you know," defensive lineman Everrette Thompson said. "Get after the ball, be aggressive, stop thinking so much -- and just go play and have fun.
"We've got to stop the run, first of all, then the pass rush will come with that. Get them into third-and-longs, then you will see some pass rush."
Thompson, Jamora and the outside defenders will have their fourth consecutive mobile quarterback to defend Saturday. Zach Maynard is far more athletic and dangerous than the drop-back-style Brock Mansion was for Cal last November in Berkeley, when the Huskies won 17-13.
Opposing quarterbacks spreading out the field and focusing on the perimeter have taken away the impact of Washington's huge defensive tackles inside - Alameda Ta'amu, the line's leader, plus his 330-plus-pound reinforcements, freshman Danny Shelton and sophomore Lawrence Lagafuaina.
No matter. The intense, driven Holt - who completed his third consecutive Rose Bowl-championship season running USC's defense before coming north with Sarkisian -- wants more from his defensive line. It entered the season as one of the Huskies' biggest perceived strengths.
"We need more production," Holt said. "It just comes back to we need to do a good job of putting our kids in position to make good plays. And when the opportunities arrive, they need to make them."
QUICK HITS: Price participated fully throughout the full-pads practice that lasted almost two hours, despite both knees still being wrapped. Sarkisian said Monday there is no structural damage in the knees, and that the nation's co-leader with 11 touchdown passes will start Saturday. ... UW has distributed about 57,350 tickets for Saturday's game. With forecasts calling for sun and a high temperature of 73, Husky Stadium could get a walkup sale on the day of the game similar to the big one of 3,000 it had for the sunny opener.