Oct. 4, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Desmond Trufant was scuffling, suddenly mistake-prone.
The junior cornerback and ball hawk had committed two 15-yard penalties to give Utah a drive start at the Huskies 40-yard line, and then a first down at their 15. Washington seemed destined to trail in Saturday's game for the first time.
But two plays later, Trufant ripped the ball from Utes receiver Dres Anderson and recovered the fumble at the UW 6. Washington scored the game's next 24 points en route to its eighth victory in nine games.
"Definitely, I just felt I had to do something," Trufant said. "I just kept bouncing back."
Just like his entire unit this season.
Trufant's sequence last weekend is a microcosm of the Huskies' defense over the first five games of 2011.
Washington has won four of those games, including the first two in Pac-12 conference play, entering this week's bye. And the defense -- generous and challenged for some of the season, maligned for much of it -- keeps bouncing back.
"We know how good we can be," senior middle linebacker and middle linebacker Cort Dennison said. "We definitely had a chip on our shoulder. We definitely know we could have played better those first few games. It was just a lot of simple mistakes. We've worked on them and tried to correct them. And (at Utah) it showed."
UW was allowing averages of 453 yards and 33 points per game before it got to Salt Lake City last weekend.
Then the defensive line welcomed back 300-pound tackle Semisi Tokolahi from a broken ankle for his season debut -- and held Utah to 17 yards on 23 rushes.
Now a healthier Tokolahi, who broke his ankle in December's Apple Cup, can team inside with Alameda Ta'amu for 650-plus pounds of run stopping. That, in turn, will free Everrette Thompson to play more at end to give UW its most athletic and versatile front line.
"Semisi's huge. It takes two people to block him, and that frees up the linebackers," said Dennison, who again led the Huskies with 10 tackles at Utah. "Having him back is huge. I'm really happy he's back."
Ta'amu said after Tuesday's 75-minute, bye-week practice that having his old early-morning conditioning buddy back on the line next to him makes him feel "unstoppable on the inside, that they can't run in there."
Defensive coordinator Nick Holt said Ta'amu and Tokolahi inside with Thompson outside at end is the set up he'd prefer to have on first and second downs. He thinks Tokolahi might be able to perhaps play 50 snaps against Colorado, Washington's next game on Oct. 15.
Effectiveness on run downs would continue to help the pass rush, which was hesitant and mostly ineffective in September. On the first day of October, it knocked Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn out of the game.
And a defense that spent all last week emphasizing the need to create more turnovers forced a season-high four last weekend, including two inside the UW 10 to deny Utah from scoring.
No wonder the Huskies got their most lopsided road win since they won by 18 at Stanford on Nov. 3, 2007.
"This is really what we are all about, what you saw (Saturday): On the road, being physical, being aggressive," Holt said.
The Huskies stuffed the Utes on Saturday after denying Cal four times from inside the UW 2 in the final minute the previous week to preserve a 31-23 victory. And Trufant saved the Sept. 3 opener by intercepting Eastern Washington in the end zone in the final minute of a 30-27 victory.
"It's comin'," Holt said of his defense. "It's a work in progress."
That progress is especially noticeable at outside linebacker and in the secondary right now.
Junior Justin Glenn, a starter in 2009 until he broke his leg midway through that season, has seized back the starting free safety job with aggressive run support and closing speed on passes in the air. Glenn is third on the team with 30 tackles - six more than he had in his first two Huskies seasons combined. Two of those stops have been for losses. Glenn has also broken up two passes.
Coach Steve Sarkisian said Glenn has been playing really well and that he's "been proud of him" for coming back from the broken leg and a 2010 season spent mostly on special teams.
"He's playing at a high level, he really is," Sarkisian said.
Glenn's emergence has given the Huskies much-needed depth at safety. They can now rotate Glenn, 2010 starter Nate Fellner and Sean Parker, the new starting strong safety whose 38 tackles are second on the team to Dennison's 44. Look for that back-line rotation more against Colorado.
Sophomore Greg Ducre has been a revelation - "excellent, fantastic," in Holt's words -- at cornerback since senior Quinton Richardson sustained a high ankle sprain in mid-August. With Richardson still not 100 percent, Ducre has become a playmaker. Or did you miss the leaping, twisting interception he made against Utah last weekend, in which he somehow kept his foot inbounds upon landing at the sideline? The play came with Washington leading 17-7 in the third quarter and essentially ended Utah's last, real chance to stay in the game.
"Greg, in high school, was really a safety, an outside linebacker-safety type. He hadn't really truly played corner, bump-and-run and off and all those things," Sarkisian said. "And so a year and a half into this now, we're really starting to see his comfort level rise up. He feels good being out there.
"He's making it difficult to put Quinton back out on the field every down. Quinton's getting reps, and he was out there at nickel with us and got a couple series at corner (last weekend). Ultimately, we're going to do what we've always said: We're going to put the guys on the field that give us the best chance to be successful. And right now Greg is proving to do that when we're in our base defense."
At outside linebacker, Jamaal Kearse has become an instant playmaker since John Timu sustained a scary neck injury against Cal. On the other side, Garret Gilliland's nose for the ball and big hits have him splitting time with original starter Princeton Fuimaono, leaving the Huskies with unexpected depth at a position that was a concern once Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa graduated following last season.
So the same defense that was getting criticized two weeks ago seems resurgent now, with a week off to get healthier and better.
What a difference a dominant performance makes.
QUICK HITS: QB Keith Price again rested his sore knees and twisted ankle, as Nick Montana did most of the first-team work in practice for the second consecutive day. TB Chris Polk was among the many other starters who also rested again. ... Sarkisian's assistants will all be on the recruiting road beginning Wednesday, leaving the head coach solo and in charge of the next practice. It will be the last one before the team gets an extended weekend off. Sarkisian will oversee Wednesday's "Scout Bowl," a scrimmage mainly between the redshirts and backups who usually run the opposing team's plays for the regulars each week.