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Updated Friday, November 23, 2012 at 11:48 AM

Huskies' improved defense is proof of their progress

By Jerry Brewer
Seattle Times staff columnist

Of course, the first Mike Leach-Steve Sarkisian Apple Cup wouldn't even be about offense. They're only two of the great scoreboard-overloading coaches in the game, but in this peculiar college football season locally, that just means to expect something different.

Like a wacky Friday afternoon kickoff in Pullman.

In the Year of Plan B, nothing has been more different, or refreshing, than the biggest thing the Huskies have over the Cougars.

A defense.

As the Huskies play to legitimize their progress by reaching eight wins for the first time since 2001, the first Leach-Sarkisian Apple Cup could turn out to be final confirmation that first-year Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is the real deal. And it's just in time for coach-poaching season.

The 36-year-old Wilcox deserves to be a candidate for head-coaching vacancies at California or any other school looking for a fresh start with a rising assistant. It would be unfortunate if the Huskies lost the most influential factor in their success this season after just a year, but if it comes to that, you'd have to support this One and Done. Wilcox has made an impact in a short time, redirecting a unit that allowed 35.9 points and 453.3 yards per game last season and putting the Huskies on the path to a promising future even if he departs.

It is the defense's remarkable improvement that might take the weird out of the Huskies' season. They need to win the Apple Cup and finish the regular season at 8-4 to claim progress in Sarkisian's fourth year, and even then, some will point to blowout losses at LSU, Oregon and Arizona and brush off the notion. But when you factor in how far the defense has come, the progress argument is considerably stronger.

Boil it down to a few stats: Last season, the Huskies ranked 106th of 120 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense. This season, they are 29th.

Last season, they were No. 116 in pass defense. This season, they are No. 9, which is by far the team's greatest strength.

The Huskies are allowing 23.2 points and 351.8 yards per game. That's about 13 fewer points and 100 fewer yards from a year ago. But let's not just consider the improvement from a 2011 season in which the Huskies had, statistically, their worst defense in school history under former coordinator Nick Holt. If the Huskies' current defensive stats hold up through the Apple Cup and bowl game, this will be their best defensive showing since allowing 20.5 points and 349.5 yards per game in 2000, their last Rose Bowl season.

The Huskies have done it while starting four sophomores and three freshmen. They will return eight of their 11 defensive starters next season, and the only star player they lose is senior cornerback Desmond Trufant, whose NFL stock is rising.

When searching for reasons to be optimistic, you used to look at the Huskies' offense. Now, with defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Travis Feeney and safety/linebacker Shaq Thompson starring on a unit with considerable youth and athleticism across the depth chart, the Huskies now have some high-performing defensive talent that you must mention with the likes of offensive stars Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Kasen Williams, Keith Price and Bishop Sankey.

I asked Sarkisian if his defense exceeded his expectations. Ever the optimist, Sarkisian hesitated for a bit, saying that he always thought the defense could be good, even after last season. Ultimately, though, he admitted the sky turned out to be even bluer than he could have forecast.

"I think our defense, to answer the question, it's exceeded expectations a little bit," Sarkisian said.

It's one thing to improve a defense's numbers. What's remarkable is that the Huskies, offense-centric under Sarkisian the first three seasons, had to rely on their defense this season, and they still made progress. The Huskies didn't score more than 21 points against a Division I FBS school until two weeks ago, but they're still 7-4. Why? Because the defense has allowed more than 17 points in just four games.

It hasn't been a lucky year in which everything goes right, either. The Huskies looked awful defensively in road defeats to LSU, Oregon and Arizona. They gave up 145 points (48.3 per game) in those blowout losses. They still struggle against potent spread offenses. They're still vulnerable against teams with dominant run games. They still don't create enough chaos on third down with their pass rush (just 22 sacks this season). But there's only so much you can do in one year.

Since the Stanford upset on Sept. 27, Sarkisian has relied on this defense. He hasn't been disappointed.

"To play like that in that Stanford game, I was like, 'OK, we can lean on these guys until we get a couple of guys healthy on offense and until we grow up a little bit on offense,' " Sarkisian said. "Knowing that we were going to lean on them, sometimes that's empowering. They felt that, and they've really responded."

If the Huskies win the first Leach-Sarkisian Apple Cup, it will be with that same defensive mindset. Then they'll be left holding their breath as teams take a look at Wilcox.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer


BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox talks to his squad at the spring game. Washington is ranked 29th in defense this season — and was 106th last year.




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