Gregg Bell Unleashed: Defending Mr. Heisman
Dec. 21, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Cort Dennison sat cheering at his television a couple Saturdays ago. He wasn't watching a game, or a concert. He wasn't playing Xbox.
From the other side of the continent, the Huskies captain wanted Robert Griffin III to win the Heisman Trophy in New York.
Dennison and his Dawgs (7-5) were already set to play Griffin and 15th-ranked Baylor (9-3) in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. But the Huskies' leader wanted to meet the challenge of defending Mr. Heisman, just like the rugged middle linebacker meets every challenge in his life.
"Yeah, I rooted for him -- because we are playing him," the Pac-12's leading tackler with 113 this season said following one of the last practices before the Huskies leave for San Antonio Friday. "We all love a challenge. We are competitors. And we want to play the best. He was obviously voted the best.
"Him winning the Heisman makes it even more fun for us, because it's a bigger challenge for us."
While much of Washington's fan base may be bracing for rockets from RGIII, the Huskies are embracing this likely shootout by the Alamo as a premier opportunity to show how far their program has come in three seasons under coach Steve Sarkisian.
"It just creates more excitement as a secondary to go against a Heisman winner. Not too many people can say that," noted Desmond Trufant, the cornerback who will need to make aggressive plays on Griffin's passes for Washington to beat Mr. Heisman.
Nick Holt is the fiery coordinator of UW's defense that has been shredded and has shined at different parts of this roller-coaster season. Holt has proudly watched this month as the unit that pummeled Washington State with seven sacks and forced two turnovers in a far more aggressive night Nov. 26 in the Apple Cup has similarly attacked preparations for Griffin and the nation's second-ranked offense.
"You know what? Our kids will be up to the challenge," Holt said. "They are going to practice really well. Our guys, they will be ready to play."
TIME IS ON UW'S SIDE
This will be the 15th time in the 120-season history of UW football the Huskies have faced that year's Heisman Trophy winner. It's only the second time they've met one after he has already won college football's glamour award.
With more than a month to prepare for Desmond Howard and Michigan in the 1992 Rose Bowl, the Huskies throttled the flashy wide receiver. Howard had just one inconsequential catch in UW's 34-14 dismantling of the fourth-ranked Wolverines. The win gave the Huskies the national championship.
Washington is 3-11 all-time against Heisman winners, dating to the 1941 opener in which Minnesota running back Bruce Smith - along with with teammate Bill Daley -- rushed for 189 yards and beat UW 14-6 at Husky Stadium. The Gophers went on to win that season's national title.
This will be the seventh time the Huskies have faced a Heisman-winning quarterback in the season in which he won the trophy.
On Oct. 13, 1962, Oregon State's Terry Baker completed just 10 of 23 throws for 144 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. I don't think the Beavers used much of that 14-13 loss to the Huskies in Seattle on the resume that won Baker the Heisman that year.
Washington has lost the other five meetings with Heisman quarterbacks. UCLA's Gary Beban threw for 289 yards and three scores in a 48-0 win over the Huskies in Los Angeles on Nov. 11, 1967. Jim Plunkett of Stanford and (1970) Carson Palmer of USC (2002) each threw for four touchdowns in wins over UW during their Heisman seasons.
Matt Leinart didn't need to throw much in USC's 38-0 win over Washington in 2004, but passed for two scores anyway. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford had five TD passes while routing the Huskies in Norman in the winless 2008 season, after which Sarkisian arrived and Washington revived.
But Washington is 6-1 and has won six in a row under Sarkisian in games that have included at least eight days of in-season preparation. That includes:
The 52-24 romp past Colorado on Oct. 15.
The 32-31 upset at 18th-ranked USC to begin October last season, after a bye in which Sarkisian remade the team's psyche. It had been battered by a blowout loss to Nebraska in the previous game.
The 24-7 shutdown of UCLA last November that came nine days after a loss at No. 1 Oregon. The nationally televised win over the Bruins on a Thursday night sparked Washington's four-game winning streak through the 2010 Holiday Bowl.
The Holiday Bowl itself. With almost four weeks to set a game plan and drill it repeatedly to ensure each Husky knew and did his job, Washington's defense manhandled Nebraska - the same offense that had scored 56 points on the Huskies three months earlier. The defensive execution was why the Dawgs upset the Cornhuskers 19-7 in San Diego for UW's first bowl win in 10 seasons.
A 30-0 dismantling of WSU in the 2009 Apple Cup came after a 48-21 loss at Oregon State and then a bye. UW went on to smash 19th-ranked Cal 42-10 the week after that Apple Cup romp.
The only loss Sarkisian has had with after extra prep time at Washington was 24-23 at UCLA following a bye on Nov. 7, 2009. Holt is 4-0 in bowls as a defensive coordinator, the first three Rose Bowls with USC. Given he and Sarkisian have 33 days between the Apple Cup and the Alamo Bowl, you can bet your 10-gallon hat the Huskies will have a new look or three for Griffin in Texas.
"To have 15 bowl practices is huge. It's like having an extra spring practice," Dennison said. "I think that's really going to help us."
Holt says Griffin is somewhat like Oregon's Darron Thomas in his ability to run, but that the Huskies haven't faced a quarterbacking package as complete or as supreme as RGIII's.
"He's mobile, like some of the quarterbacks we've seen, the guy from Oregon and some other guys," Holt said. "But he throws the ball tremendously. I mean, he's a first-round draft pick, the Heisman Trophy winner. And for good reason.
"All right?" Holt added, shrugging and chuckling. "So ... I don't know what to tell you."
Dennison thinks Griffin is unlike anyone he's faced.
"He's RGIII. He has his own identity. He is an incredible football player," the Huskies' leader said. "He can throw with the best of them. He can run with the best of them."
So how are these Huskies going to try to defend Mr. Heisman?
A pass rush would sure help - though we've said that in each of UW's 12 previous games. With the seven-sack uprising in the Apple Cup, Washington has 24 sacks in those dozen games.
Look for rush-end specialist Josh Shirley to get more chances to charge in the Alamo Bowl, to try to at least affect Griffin's throws.
But that and blitzing are tall tasks against Baylor. Literally.
The Bears' veteran offensive linemen have these dimensions from left to right tackle: 6-feet-5, 330 pounds; 6-4, 315; 6-3, 320; 6-6, 330; and 6-4, 300.
Heck, Robert Griffin even blocks - Robert T. Griffin, that is. The senior is Baylor's 6-6, 330-pound right guard.
Plus, Holt said when that other Robert Griffin drops deep for his many home-run throws, Baylor reinforces its large line with extra protection schemes.
"You'd like to get a pass rush. That's key, always," Washington's defensive coordinator said. "That's one of the important aspects of what we have to do.
"But we have to stay deep (in the secondary)."
Trufant, fellow cornerbacks Quinton Richardson and Greg Ducre, plus safeties Sean Parker, Nate Fellner and Justin Glenn need to stay deep and let the defensive front worry about Griffin's scrambling. Deep, as in a prevent-defense deep, perhaps.
The Huskies have often given up big plays by letting opposing receivers catch the ball in front of them while providing huge coverage cushions. But in the Alamo Bowl, it wouldn't be so bad if you could not see a UW defensive back on your TV screen at the snap.
"The key is to not give up all the big plays they put on everybody," Holt said. "These guys are explosive. He's really accurate. He's an excellent runner. They have a good running back. Their wide outs are really, really good. And they chuck the ball deep."
As Trufant said: "They get guys open really easy because everyone is so clued in on Robert. Then the receivers are just running wide open."
The Huskies would rather Baylor take 10 or more plays to drive down the field on throws in front of them than to give up the stunning big plays that won Griffin that Heisman.
"We've got to make them work the length of the field and not give up explosive plays for touchdowns," Holt said. "They've moved the ball on everybody. We've just got to do a good job of not giving up big, explosive touchdowns."
Griffin is similar to Huskies quarterback Keith Price -- each has a decisive ability to extend plays by moving outside the pocket. And each does so while maintaining focus downfield on receivers who are breaking open on adjusted routes late in plays.
That is how Griffin beat Oklahoma with 8 seconds left in what became his Heisman moment last month. He took a shotgun snap at the Sooners 40, sprinted to his left to the 35 to avoid a rushing end, pulled up in front of another Sooner charging at him and threw back to the other side of the field in the end zone for the winning touchdown. It was the fourth TD pass of his 479-yard passing night in Baylor's first ever win over Oklahoma.
"He is really fast," Holt said. "And it's hard to cover these guys forever.
"He's the Heisman trophy winner. There are not too many guys that come around like him. He's a great talent. We just have to try and contain him and much as possible."
Then there's the great equalizer, the one that would give Washington the best chance of slowing this RGIII phenomenon and keeping pace with it with Price, Chris Polk and Huskies' own offense: Creating turnovers.
Washington is 5-1 this season when forcing two or more turnovers. The only loss was when the Huskies gave away as many as they took - three - at Oregon State.
"Try to eliminate big plays and force turnovers," are Dennison's ideas for slowing down Griffin and Baylor in the Alamo Bowl.
Sarkisian laughed when I asked him if he was like Dennison in rooting for Griffin to win the Heisman so UW could have its bowl stage become potentially grand.
"This is a great opportunity for us to play a top-15 ranked opponent essentially on the road and in their state. And for us, that's exciting," he said. "It's another chance for us to go out and show who we are and to prepare ourselves and to play and to have fun with it. And I think we'll embrace the opportunity.
"If that's good enough to win ... we'll see. But I do know that we're preparing extremely well. And part of (it) is we get to play a Heisman Trophy winner."