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Washington Husky Football Season in Review: Evaluating the Rushing Defense

Did the Husky rush D fail to meet, meet, or exceed your expectations in 2017?

NCAA Football: Washington State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, the trio of Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines, and Vita Vea gave Washington a run defense that was tops in Pac-12 and the cornerstone of a defensive line that led them to a conference crown. Azeem Victor deserves a huge shoutout for that too, as we saw very clearly this year the impact (or lack thereof) when he’s not on the field.

Anyway, Qualls went pro early, but the coaches secured a coup by convincing Vita Vea to come back for a final year and announce himself as one of the premier defensive tackles in college football. That, he did.

Vita got the QB more than most interior DTs.

Combined with Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson, Levi Onwuzurike, and Benning Potoa’e, the Huskies improved their per-carry rush defense by over half a yard, from 3.6 to 2.9. Their per-game average dropped 30 yards too, and the Dawgs finished the year allowing exactly 100.8 yards per game on the ground. Both marks put Washington tops in the Pac-12 and among the leading units in the country. Only surrendering 11 total TDs on the ground is quite good as well.

On the surface, Washington’s rush defense saw measurable improvement. However, a look under the hood indicates those numbers might be a bit misleading. Let’s take a closer look.

What we said in the Preseason

“Husky fans should expect to put up similar productivity in rush defense as they did a year ago. In fact, I think it is altogether likely that a deeper d-line and more effective rush defense from the BUCK position will result in more disruption and plays behind the line of scrimmage. I also like our depth in helping to address our consistency from game to game....It’s hard to improve on great, especially when there is the kind of change happening the likes of which UW is experiencing. Thus, I’m going with NEUTRAL in my assessment of their rush defense in 2017.”

By the Numbers

Advanced Stats (national)

Washington was near the top of the country in multiple advanced statistics.

Quick refresher on what some of these stats mean:

Rushing IsoPPP: Essentially a measure of explosiveness. The Huskies gave up very little in the way of explosive runs (yes, Penn State fans, I remember that run in the Fiesta Bowl).

Opportunity rate: This attempts to tell us the offensive line’s impact - on what percentage of runs was there at least 5 yards of rushing for the runner? The Huskies ranking 6th here tells us that they usually were able to minimize the offensive line’s impact, and runs were largely due to the running back making a great play.

Power success rate: Percent of runs on 3rd or 4th down, 2 yards or less to go, that produce a first down. Washington is a little lower than the national average - in short yardage situations, opponents sometimes could get their yards.

Stuff rate: Percent of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. A consistent issue all year was being able to get into the backfield. Washington was not exceptional in this regard and did not often generate huge TFL numbers.

Standard Statistics (Conference)


The reasonable expectation this year was that Washington would continue to have the top rush defense in the conference and one of the best in the country. Consider that box checked. The stats back that up, though a case can be made those stats are padded from some weak OOC and Pac-12 opponents. Despite that, Vita Vea had a huge season and Greg Gaines continued to be an unsung hero on DL, playing through injuries most of the season.

Against most teams, the unit dominated. I’ve only mentioned the true D-linemen so far, but LBs like Tevis Bartlett, BBK, Keishawn Bierria, and Ryan Bowman contributed as well against most teams. Multiple Pac-12 foes were completely smothered on the ground: Colorado, Oregon State, Cal, Washington State, UCLA, and Utah. They held Cal to NEGATIVE FORTY FREAKIN’ YARDS.

On the flip side, they were sometimes the guilty party when Washington’s run defense was not so successful. Against Stanford, Washington allowed both an injured Bryce Love and QB K.J. Costello to rush for over 5 yards each per carry. It’s pure speculation to think that the game would have turned in Washington’s favor had they contained the run better, but stopping the run is a key ingredient in the winning football formula. Stanford’s offensive line was able to minimize the impact of Gaines and Vea, and let Washington’s other defenders beat them. They couldn’t, and too often were washed out of plays. Missing Azeem Victor’s size, presence, and physicality really hurt in times like this during the season.

Even against Oregon, where the Huskies dominated 38-3, the rush defense was a bit soft. The Ducks gained nearly 250 yards on the ground, including 122 from Royce Freeman. He, Darrian Felix, and Tony Brooks-James each averaged over 5 yards per carry. Again, the Husky linebackers were not able to clean up after the DL, which was only okay in getting into the backfield (only 3 TFLs from the defensive line).

The ultimate test, however, was the Fiesta Bowl. Going into the game, the Huskies had the number 1-ranked rush defense in the country and would face all-everything running back Saquon Barkley. If you take away his long run (which was really a team-wide defensive error) he only had 17 carries for 45 yards. But Trace McSorley’s scrambles and designed runs gashed the Huskies all game. Neither McSorley or Barkley were taken down behind the line of scrimmage very often, consistently gaining positive yardage.

All things considered, Washington played excellent defense against the run all year. They had warts, but most of the season they were able to hide them. However, against the best teams or ones with elite players (Love, Freeman, Barkley) the Huskies didn’t have quite enough juice to make them non-factors, as some teams did with Myles Gaskin. The Vea-Gaines combo will no doubt go down as one of the better DT duos in school history, but they couldn’t do it all on their own. When #50 and #99 were neutralized, other members of the DL and LB rotation were not often able to make the plays behind the line of scrimmage required to negate that effect.

They were great, but despite the numbers, not quite elite. With Greg Gaines coming back for the 2018 season, hopes are again high for the rush defense. You can’t simply replace Vita Vea, but with Gaines leading the way and a supporting cast of Jaylen Johnson, Benning Potoa’e, and Levi O, there are enough pieces.

But, we’ll talk about that plenty when it comes time to preview 2018. For now, GO HUSKIES!


How do you describe Washington’s 2017 rushing defense?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    It exceeded my preseason expectations
    (82 votes)
  • 68%
    It met my preseason expectations
    (363 votes)
  • 16%
    It failed to meet my preseason expectations
    (86 votes)
531 votes total Vote Now