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30-Day Countdown — Day 17: Pac-12’s Best Defense

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Washington fielded the conference’s best defense in 2015. Will they be able to repeat that performance this fall?

Washington v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For a conference with a well-earned reputation for producing offensive explosions and developing next-level quarterbacks, the Pac-12 has fielded some quality defenses in recent years. Stanford’s 16.4 points allowed per game in 2014, for example, ranked second in the nation behind Ole Miss, while USC’s 334.9 yards allowed per game in 2013 ranked 13th. Today, we take a look at which team figures to be the conference’s most stifling defense this fall.

Washington

The 18.8 points per game that Washington surrendered in 2015 ranked No. 13 in America and No. 1 in the Pac-12, eclipsing second-place Utah by a full 3.5 points. This year, the team returns seven starters on defense, including two first-team all-conference players in safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones, as well as honorable mentions in defensive lineman Greg Gaines, defensive back Kevin King, and linebacker Azeem Victor. Even better, the five players expected to start in Washington’s nickel package (Baker, Jones, King, Darren Gardenhire, and JoJo McIntosh) boast a combined 80 starts between them. The Dawgs allowed just 11 receiving touchdowns last year, ranking first in the conference and ninth in the nation; that number seems likely to drop even further in 2016, due in part to its players having another year in defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s system combined with the fact that more of Washington’s conference opponents will be breaking in new quarterbacks this fall compared to last season.

Though this unit is not without significant question marks — how the Huskies replace graduated linebackers Travis Feeney (second-team all-conference) and Cory Littleton (honorable mention) is foremost among them — there is enough talent and experience among the unit’s two-deeps to reasonably project Washington’s defense playing to the level of one of the nation’s elite.

Utah

The Utes quietly turned in one of the nation’s best rushing defenses in 2015, giving up just 108.6 rushing yards per contest. That figure ranked first in the Pac-12, outpacing second-place Washington by 16.7 yards per game, and ranked fourth among Power Five teams. Kyle Whittingham accomplished this impressive feat on the strength of three first-team all conference players in defensive lineman Lowell Lotulelei, linebacker Gionni Paul, and defensive back Marcus Williams, as well as second-team linebacker Jared Norris and honorable mention defensive lineman Jason Fanaika. Of them, Utah returns just Lotulelei and Williams; however, Utah’s defense has ranked 41st or better by yards allowed per game in four of the past six years, and Whittingham has earned the benefit of the doubt as one of the nation’s more capable defensive gurus.

Where Utah needs to show marked improvement in order to be considered the conference’s best defense is in the passing game. Last year, the Utes allowed 258.2 receiving yards per game (ninth in the Pac-12) and 22 touchdowns (sixth), but showed flashes of ability in securing a conference-best 22 interceptions while allowing 6.8 yards per attempt, tied for fourth-best in the Pac-12. Don’t be surprised to see Utah turn last year’s lumps in the secondary into a proficient and even dominating unit as the team’s young players take another step forward in their development.

Stanford

Ever since Jim Harbaugh took over operations on The Farm in 2007, the Cardinal have established themselves as the conference’s most physical team by combining suffocating defense with a hard-nosed offensive philosophy of running between the tackles and daring opponents to stand their ground against some of the most talented players along the line of scrimmage in college football. That Stanford has booked passage to three of the last four Rose Bowls is evidence of how well that approach has worked for them.

Last season, Stanford didn’t display any particular weaknesses on defense, ranking third, fourth, fifth, and third in the conference in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, and total defense respectively. They did so with a heavily senior-laden team, with defensive lineman Aziz Shittu and linebacker Blake Martinez earning first-team all-conference recognition, defensive back Ronnie Harris on the second team, and linebacker Kevin Anderson and defensive lineman Brennan Scarlett earning honorable mention. In fact, the only Stanford defensive player returning in 2016 who earned all-conference honors is defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, a redshirt sophomore and former five-star recruit whom Phil Steele and Athlon named to their preseason all-conference first teams. The Cardinal need to especially reinforce their dominance in the trenches along the defense’s front seven, as just six of the 14 players in its two-deeps are juniors or seniors. Again, though, this is a unit that has consistently been one of the best in the conference for close to 10 years now, and David Shaw has shown no signs of that tendency falling by the wayside.

The Verdict: Washington

The Huskies played a particularly brutal style of defense last season by forcing opponents to settle for small gains (Washington surrendered just 16 plays of 30 or more yards last season, tied for seventh-best in the nation) and then forced them to be perfect in the red zone, yielding only 17 touchdowns in such situations (tied for sixth-best in America). With Pete Kwiatkowski again commandeering seven returning starters on the defense, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the team doesn’t meet or exceed that standard.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. Washington needs badly to find a solution at the two outside linebacker positions vacated by Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, and JoJo McIntosh needs to make the transition from quality second-stringer to capable starter. Along the line of scrimmage, the team needs some combination of Greg Gaines, Vita Vea and/or Ricky McCoy to fill in for graduated nose tackle Taniela Tupou.

Areas of need aside, though, Washington’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria constitute one of the fiercest inside linebacker combinations in the conference, Elijah Qualls is more mobile and agile than any man standing 6-1 and 321 lbs. has any right to be, and Sidney Jones and Budda Baker have the potential to become early picks in next season’s NFL Draft. Washington is going to be regarded by opponents all year long as one of the most difficult foes on their schedule, and that defense is a huge reason why the Huskies have been on the receiving end of a cascade of hype this offseason. Whether or not they live up to it will be one of the Pac-12’s most exciting story lines of 2016.