Updated Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 08:26 PM
It's no surprise that Washington State ranks 10th in the nation in passing yardage, averaging 328 yards per game.
What is surprising is that Washington's pass defense ranks even higher.
The Huskies, who travel to Pullman to play the Cougars in the Apple Cup at 12:30 p.m. Friday, are ninth nationally in passing yardage allowed, giving up 174 yards per game. Last season, UW ranked 116th, allowing 284 yards.
For those who might quibble that passing yards allowed can be a misleading stat, UW also ranks 16th in pass defense efficiency; it was 87th a year ago.
The passing numbers of 2011 were among the reasons the Huskies overhauled their defensive coaching staff, beginning with the firing of coordinator Nick Holt. He was replaced by Justin Wilcox, a former defensive back at Oregon who gets ample credit from many at UW for the transformation of the defense, specifically the secondary.
"Just coach Wilcox and the systems that be brought in," said senior safety Justin Glenn, asked Monday the biggest change in the secondary. "They fit our personnel very well."
Not that those systems can be categorized easily. The Huskies have played many defenses, and played them well, changing markedly from week to week, depending on the opponent.
"That's the thing, he mixes it up," Glenn said. "We play a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and each week, whatever type of offense they run, we have a scheme for that."
Wilcox deflects credit to the other UW assistant coaches and the players, who have shown the ability to quickly grasp the constantly evolving schemes.
"The kids are playing with more confidence and they are eating it (the defense) up," Wilcox said. "They are great in the meeting rooms."
It helps that UW has an experienced secondary. Glenn, the starting free safety, is a fifth-year senior with 18 career starts. Sean Parker, the strong safety, is a junior with 24 starts. Cornerback Desmond Trufant is a senior who started 45 straight games before sitting out Saturday at Colorado with a hamstring injury. (He is expected to be back for the WSU game, though he has yet to be cleared). And redshirt freshman Marcus Peters has come on to fill the job that was in doubt heading into the season, the cornerback spot opposite Trufant.
That experience is one reason UW coach Steve Sarkisian thought the secondary might make a quick improvement this season under the new defensive coaches, including defensive backs coach Keith Heyward.
"I've always been high on them (the players in the secondary)," Sarkisian said. "I think that not only the addition of Justin but Keith Heyward has had a great effect on our secondary. He's brought a real confidence and calming effect to them. I think we've reduced the amount of anxiety we used to play back there. We believe in ourselves. We trust our technique. We play with a great deal of confidence. And ultimately we are making plays on the ball better than we have before. We are getting interceptions. We are breaking up passes."
The result is a secondary on the verge of helping UW put up its best pass defense numbers in years. The Huskies are on pace to allow their fewest yards passing per game since 1992 (165.3). And opponents are completing just 52 percent of their passes — UW allowed 62.8 percent last year and is on pace for the lowest percentage since 2003 (51.7). In something of an oddity, though, UW's pass defense numbers have improved greatly despite the fact the number of sacks has remained stagnant — the Huskies have 22 this year after getting 28 last season.
Friday's game at WSU, Glenn said, provides the secondary "a great challenge." The Cougars have set school records for attempts and completions, if struggling often to convert the yards into points.
Wilcox said the challenge of WSU's offense is that "they essentially have an answer" for any defensive scheme. "They always have an out, a way of getting the ball to receivers and getting it out in space."
This year, though, the UW secondary has more than not shown it has its own answers, a feeling Glenn said began in the spring and has steadily built.
"Obviously you want to be optimistic and think that we could improve from last year," he said. "Once we kind of got going a little bit and realized what the schemes were and what he (Wilcox) was doing and how the personnel fit, I thought we would be a lot better than we were last year. And now we're starting to play our best."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta.
|By the numbers|
|The Apple Cup will match Washington State's passing game against a much-improved Washington secondary. The Cougars are ranked 10th in the nation in passing yards per game. The Huskies are ninth in passing yards allowed, after ranking 116th last season.|
|Category||WSU offense||UW defense|
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Marcus Peters celebrates his fourth-quarter interception against Oregon State last month. The redshirt freshman has ably filled one cornerback spot.
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Husky safety Justin Glenn credits defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, right, for the secondary's big improvement this season.