The Huskies returned to the brand of football that spawned their tradition in a 17-13 victory over No. 8 Stanford. It was an upset powered by vintage Husky defense.
You know what they say about the Washington football team: With a defense like the Huskies have, it’s easy to tackle improbability.
Well, actually, nobody says that anymore, unless they just thawed from a two-decade freeze. The Huskies haven’t played like this in quite a while.
They’re usually a finesse team that aspires to smash mouths. On Thursday night, before a national television audience, the Huskies returned to the brand of football that spawned their tradition in an improbable 17-13 victory over No. 8 Stanford.
It was an upset powered by vintage Husky defense. Washington overwhelmed a Cardinal offense that was too milquetoast to counter. Twelve days earlier, Stanford had mauled then-No. 2 USC, gaining 202 rushing yards to the Trojans’ 26 and forcing Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Matt Barkley into an inefficient performance that included two interceptions.
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But seeing the Cardinal at its best with the Huskies’ struggles with injuries and offensive production over the first three games, and the pregame conversation exaggerated what a mismatch this game could be. As Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said afterward, “Outside of our locker room, I don’t know who else thought we’d win. Maybe my wife. She might’ve given us a shot.”
In truth, the Huskies never needed an otherworldly performance to have a chance against Stanford. They just needed to be more disciplined than they’ve shown to keep the game close. Stanford lacks the offensive explosiveness and ingenuity to run away from teams that stay solid. But the Cardinal makes up for the missing pizzazz with its rugged, hard-nosed style and great execution.
It was an immense request for the Huskies to stand up to Stanford’s brawn, and for much of the game, the Washington offensive line wasn’t up to the challenge. The entire defense was, however. It wound up inspiring the entire team.
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox proved his worth. The Huskies were excellent across the board, limiting the Cardinal to 65 rushing yards and just 235 total yards. There were many stellar individual performances — Desmond Trufant, Sean Parker, John Timu, Thomas Tutogi, Shaq Thompson and on and on — but collectively, the Huskies functioned with a level of competence, aggressiveness and trust in the scheme that had been lacking for years.
You can measure how far the Huskies have come on defense simply by remembering that Stanford rushed for an asinine 446 yards in a 65-21 victory over Washington last season.
“It was tremendous,” Sarkisian said of the defense. “The kids are believing. They’re buying into what we’re trying to get done.”
Said Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, who was limited to 75 yards: “They’re a totally different team. We didn’t rack up as many yards as we did last year, so obviously they are a different team. They came out here to play.”
The defense allowed only six points, two field goals. Stanford didn’t score a touchdown on offense.
The Huskies haven’t embraced a physical challenge and performed like this on defense since whipping Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl two years ago. Many thought that would be the start of a new era of ideal Husky football, but it proved to be an aberration. The Huskies came back last season under former defensive coordinator Nick Holt and produced perhaps the worst defense in school history, concluding with a humiliating effort in a 67-56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor.
So Sarkisian turned to Wilcox. Despite some uneven play in the first three games, Wilcox’s defense had already provided reason to be encouraged. But this was a masterpiece. By stopping the run, the Huskies were able to exploit quarterback Josh Nunes, the Andrew Luck successor who was making his first road start.
Nunes completed only 18 of 37 passes. He even came up a yard short on a 3three-yard pass attempt. He was shaky, but give the Huskies credit. Who knew Washington would be able to stop the run enough to make Nunes a factor?
“We were a disciplined group,” Sarkisian said. “Early on, one of our biggest mishaps was that we weren’t disciplined defensively.”
That transformation is happening quickly. The Huskies stayed in their gaps, tackled well and swarmed to the football. They were so good that, while the offense was scuffling through most of the first three quarters, the defense exclaimed on the sidelines, “We’ll be OK. We’re going to do our job on defense.”
“From where we were a year ago, it was something for our defense to come over and show that kind of leadership,” Sarkisian said.
The Huskies just beat a top-10 team with their defense. That was a bigger upset than the final score.
The performance was vintage. And perhaps vintage is back in style.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @JerryBrewer