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Season in Review: Husky Rushing Defense

So good, it hurts (opposing ball carriers, that is).

Colorado v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The best rush defense that Steve Sarkisian ever had in his five years on Montlake averaged 4.1 yards per rush surrendered. That was in 2013, Sarkisian’s last with the Huskies. You’ll remember that team. Danny Shelton was just coming into his own as an interior d-lineman. Hau’oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson and John Timu made up the heart of the defense. A guy name Princeton Fuimaono actually led the team in tackles that year (80). And the Dawgs finished ranked 57th in the nation in rush defense.

It was Sark’s best team in that regard.

I lay that down to put the rest of this assessment in context. During the tenure of Chris Petersen, no Husky defense has ever surrendered more than four yards per carry over an entire season. Ever. So to say that this was one of the worst performing of Petersen’s teams carries with it a big “yeah, but”. The standard of excellence has been so high with regard to this run defense that a unit that surrenders 3.53 ypc, gives up 13 TDs on the ground and finishes tied with Alabama as 21st in the nation could be considered a “disappointment”. It’s sad, but true.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

What We Expected

For the most part, we saw new DC Jimmy Lake execute pretty much the same kind of run defense philosophy that DC Pete Kwiatkowski ran before him. While it is true that the Huskies emphasized some different concepts in how they defended the pass, we expected - and saw - Washington emphasize six man boxes with defensive linemen carrying two-gap responsibilities much of the time. The whole idea was to goad the offense into run-first reads, occupy as many offensive linemen with the front line as possible and keep Ben Burr-Kirven free to make tackles.

It’s the formula we’ve all come to expect.

The Huskies in 2017 ran that same formula with near perfection. With Vita Vea paired alongside Greg Gaines, success was to be expected. Washington finished second in the nation with an astounding 2.86 ypc surrendered, just a fraction of a yard behind first place Alabama and their 2.72 ypc. Though UW generated just 64 TFLs (100th in the nation) that season, their big play prevention was off the charts. They surrendered just seven carries over 20 yards for the season and were one of only twelve teams in the nation to not surrender more than one 40 yard run over the whole of the year. Even by advanced stats standards, the Dawgs tipped the charts. They were 11th overall in defensive Rushing S&P and second overall in points surrendered per rush.

I doubt that anybody expected 2017 production out of this team with the losses of Vea and LB Keishawn Bierria factored in. That said, most observers of the team felt that a line featuring Gaines, Jaylen Johnson, Levi Onwuzurike and Benning Potoa’e would be more than enough to keep the jerseys of both BBK and Tevis Bartlett clean enough to put up solid numbers and keep opposing offenses mostly contained on their side of the field.

What We Saw

What we actually ended up seeing was one of the softest versions of Petersen’s bend-don’t-break rush defense that we’ve seen throughout his tenure. Again, I emphasize that this is a relative observation and that most other PAC 12 teams would love to be where UW finished 2018 with their rush defense. But, in terms of UW’s own standards, 2018 was a down season. Consider the following:

  • 3.53 YPC surrendered is UW’s second worst since 2013
  • UW’s 64 TFL’s was it’s worst by a factor of ~25% in the Petersen era
  • Despite surrendering its second-worst YPC since Petersen took over, it gave up fewer overall yards in chunk plays than all but one other Petersen team indicating that the median yards per rush was relatively high (sorry, didn’t have time to chart that stat)
  • For advanced stat lovers, UW’s Rushing S&P+ of 119.1 (still 10th in the nation) was it’s lowest since they recorded 108.9 in 2014

Put it all together, we saw in 2018 a rush defense that was excellent in defending big plays, but demonstrated an inconsistent ability to either create havoc on the line of scrimmage or to make plays behind the sticks of the opponents.

Nevertheless, we saw some fantastic individual performances. Burr-Kirven’s 176 total tackles (1st in the nation) and 94 solo tackles (2nd in the nation) defined him as one of the greatest tackling machines in UW history ... and Washington’s second straight PAC 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Gainesville, who set a career UW mark by playing in 54 career games (remarkable for a d-lineman), was as active and disruptive an interior lineman as we’ve ever seen and was, I thought, the team’s most valuable player. Onwuzurike had a breakout campaign while Potoa’e continued to show that his strength is in setting the edge and defending the run. Defensive backs Myles Bryant and Byron Murphy also had their moments in run support.

But, as a whole, UW left fans feeling like there were a lot of easy yards given up that should have been prevented before their opponents made it to the red zone (incidentally, UW’s 39 red zone trips allowed was the just about on average for all Petersen teams but still good enough to be a decent 31st in the nation).

What We Learned

We learned what we should have known all along: there is no infallible football scheme on either side of the ball. Even accounting for the absence of Vea, it should not be a surprise that UW’s opponents got more disciplined at “taking what the defense gives them”. UW hasn’t wavered too much in its core defensive philosophy from year to year. Only the personnel has changed. Without a bona fide maneater like a Vea or a Shelton to shoulder the load, it is harder for UW linebackers to get ball carriers down in the hole.

But we should emphasize that we also learned just how consistent, just how fundamentally sound and just how effective UW’s rush defense philosophy really is. The Huskies routinely put their front half of the defense at a numbers disadvantage against opponent rushing offenses and routinely put up top 15-ish kinds of results. Year in year out. Like clockwork. It is a great sight to behold.

What We Should See in 2019

Pundits have looked at the turnover of UW’s defensive starters going into next season and started to hit the panic button. I’ve seen forecasts that ping UW as low as a fringe top 40 team with the primary rationale being the defensive turnover. And while it is true that UW has to replace a lot of names, it is also true that the players coming back accounted for nearly half of UW’s defensive snaps in 2018.

So, the news of UW’s defensive demise might be a tad overstated.

In fact, one might argue that UW’s returners have more experience combined with physical upside than their predecessors. A front six that includes Onwuzurike, Potoa’e, LB Brandon Wellington and LB DJ Beavers certainly feels like one that has more overall speed without sacrificing any stoutness. If you layer in some unknowns like Joe Tryon, Sam Taimani and Zion Tupuola-Fetui, you might find a break out player who might really elevate the whole thing.

I do think, however, that UW will suffer from the same kind of trouble that it had in 2018 without a big Vea type of body who can create gap pressure while taking on two blockers. Without that, the Huskies are surely going to have to get a little more creative in how they try to generate negative plays by experimenting with some different kinds of players on the field and some new kinds of run blitz options. But those things feel like tweaks more so than remodels.

By and by, I don’t see any reason that UW won’t primarily stick with what it does best. 2018 feels like a reachable level of production in run defense if not the floor of what next year’s team might be able to produce.