The Huskies are seeking to get back to doing only their individual, assigned tasks on defense this week at Arizona State after reverting to a bad, old habit against Oregon. “We were too energetic,” Sean Parker says.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – The new theme for the Huskies’ defense: Relax.
Yes, it sounds counter to the attacking nature of coordinator Justin Wilcox and the mentality he’s instilled in two seasons remaking Washington defense into one of the better ones in the Pac-12.
UW entered last week with the top-rated defense in the Pac-12. The Dawgs were in harmony, pass rushing together in their assigned lanes, containing if not sacking quarterbacks, meshing run gaps between linemen and linebackers, playing aggressively on their assigned receivers and the ball in the secondary.
Then Oregon arrived.
The Ducks had 30 first downs, 265 yards rushing, 366 yards passing, 631 total yards and 45 points. All were by far season highs allowed by UW; the points were 31 more than it had been allowing per game.
Sure, second-ranked Oregon and brilliant quarterback Marcus Mariota were far better than any foe Washington (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) had faced through five games. It’s not a stretch to say the Ducks looked like the best team in the country on Saturday, Alabama included.
But in retrospect the Huskies found an old, corollary reason for playing far from their best game last week at sold-out, rockin’ Husky Stadium: They believe they were too amped, too anxious, and were trying to do too much.
Defensive backs peeked into Oregon’s backfield to see if Mariota was going to run, allowing receivers to break free past them. Outside pass rushers got too eager and rushed inside at Mariota, losing containment and the coveted, coordinated “cage” on which UW has worked tirelessly to entrap opposing quarterbacks this season.
Doing too much beyond each player’s assigned task is an issue from previous seasons that these veteran Huskies felt they had mastered long ago.
"I felt like all of us had anxiety going into the game," senior safety Sean Parker said following Tuesday morning's practice at the Dempsey Indoor facility for Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Arizona State (4-2, 2-1). "We were too energetic. And sometimes we were too lax. We've got to be right in the middle, where it's perfect. Then we can match the other team's tempo.”
Parker, the Huskies’ leader with three interceptions this season, did his part. Again. He had 10 tackles last weekend, including of Mariota on fourth down one a yard short of the line to gain end Oregon’s first offensive series.
He said last week was the first time this season the Huskies had seen such in-game anxiousness.
“I don't plan on seeing it again,” he said.
Fellow senior co-captain and defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha agreed the Dawgs last week lost some of the discipline and personal accountability that had them 4-0 to start the season. In their only loss before Oregon, UW had held Stanford essentially to 14 points -- excluding three long kickoff returns that led directly to 17 of Stanford's points in Washington’s 31-28 loss two weeks ago.
"It obviously affects the defense. You try to do too much and your responsibility isn't completely covered, and there's an open hole in the defense somewhere," Kikaha said of the 45-24 loss to the Ducks. "And they found them."
Kikaha, Parker plus middle linebacker and co-captain John Timu, who also had 10 tackles – two for losses – against Oregon, began stressing to teammates the importance of not trying to do more than their own jobs during last weekend's game and in the locker room at halftime. Their message: Keep eye discipline by reading only the keys each Husky has been assigned for each play. Maintain fundamentals such as swim techniques to shed blocks on the defensive line, lateral movement by linebackers and inside or outside alignment and then positioning on receivers by defensive backs.
"We had that performance anxiety that Sean Parker brought up," Wilcox said. "And when that happens, against an offense like Oregon or Arizona State, if your eyes are in the wrong spot for a split second or your feet aren't right for a split second, they can expose that. Because they have good players, too."
In that way, the road trip to Arizona State Friday might be good timing for the Huskies to get back to the unity and dependability the defense felt it had before the Oregon game.
"Yeah, I kind of like the idea of going on the road -- and going to some warm weather," Kikaha, a native of Hawaii, said with a grin. "It's when it's just us because then we can only turn to each other.
"Guys were trying to do too much and basically getting away from each other as a unit, just a little bit. ... I did think (we were past that). But I do agree with Sean that there was some anxiety."
Kikaha cited last week’s national hype, ESPN's “College GameDay” pregame show being at UW for the first time and the constant reminders from outside before the game about Oregon's nine-game winning streak in the rivalry as some of the external factors that affected performance. It was a first this season for a team that prides itself on focus.
"There was so much going on. You want to say that no one would be affected by all these outside, external influences -- like GameDay, their ranking, nine years of them winning, fan stuff, meeting with donors. Just a whole bunch of stuff going on,” said Kikaha, who also had a key, third-down stop last week on an end around to force an Oregon field goal. “There's no excuse. But you can't say that no one was affected by that.
"Like I said, there are no excuses," he said. "We should have been able to play without that anxiety."
Sure, the Huskies and their defense that has had the same 11 starters for each game this season except for when Timu was injured for Idaho State will be excited to re-prove themselves Saturday at ASU. Yes, they are likely to give another top effort; coach Steve Sarkisian reiterated how effort was not the issue against Oregon.
But if you see defenders in white, road jerseys chasing Arizona State all over Sun Devil Stadium -- if defensive ends are inside and on their opposite side of the field, if linebackers are where cornerbacks usually are, if defensive backs are peeking into the backfield to see if elusive ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly might scramble on a pass play -- the Huskies may be once again reverting to trying too hard to do too much.
"There are times in games that you have that energy, and you've got to be able to manage that energy in the right way,” said Wilcox, who played safety at Oregon. “Especially against a very talented team, your margin for error is so, so small. If you are little over-anxious to make this play or that play instead of reading your keys and being 100 percent with your technique ... they've got good players, too. When teams have that much explosiveness at that many positions you have to be on point.”
The coordinator thinks his defense could be better at Arizona State simply because of the experience – however painful – last week against Oregon.
"It's experience, and knowing how to manage yourself, what it takes for you to play a good game,” he said. “Everybody wants to play well, that's not unique. No matter how badly you want to do something, that's not a unique feeling. It's being able to manage your energy and your emotions and still play your techniques like you did on a Tuesday practice, with the same eye discipline. (It’s) whether there are 72,000 people and we are playing Oregon, or there's nobody in the stadium and you are in a fall camp team period.
"Being able to manage that is extremely important."
It may determine whether the Huskies leave Tempe Saturday night 5-2 or 4-3.