The Washington Huskies’ defense has surprised even their coaches, not to mention the rest of the Pac-12. They’ve done it with a tough, tenacious style that reminds some of past UW teams.

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Two of Washington’s defensive coaches had just finished Monday’s final film-study session around 9 p.m. and were walking down a flight of stairs together, on their way out of the Husky football offices, when a realization struck:

“I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

Jeff Choate and Bob Gregory aren’t the only ones pleasantly surprised that the UW defense has been this successful.

Top Dawg defenses

The Huskies’ five best scoring defenses in points allowed per game since 1985:

1991: 8.4

1992: 12.3

1990: 12.5

1986: 14.1

2015: 16.9

Source: UW sports information

But for longtime Husky fans, this should look a little familiar.

After one of their most lopsided conference victories over the past 15 years — a 49-3 destruction of Arizona on Saturday night — the Huskies continue to lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing an average of 16.9 points through eight games. That’s the fewest allowed by a UW defense since 1992, Don James’ final season as head coach.

That’s also a 32 percent improvement over last season, when UW allowed 24.8 points per game. It’s a tribute to the old-school, physical play that the Huskies have developed under second-year defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

Choate, the defensive-line coach, offered a simple explanation for UW’s success.

“It comes down to our guys being in the right place at the right time, doing their job and then running to the ball,” he said. “There’s going to be technique things, there’s going to be alignment things that you’ve got to correct. But at the end of the day, our guys are going to swell up and play their (butts) off. That’s what you’re looking for.”

How do you get to the point where it becomes that simple?

“You demand it,” Choate said. “It’s like anything else: It’s really easy to do, and it’s also really easy not to do. It’s really easy to go, ‘You know what, I’ll let that one slide.’ Well, you can’t let it slide. You’ve got to say, ‘No, that’s not how we do it. This is how we do it.’

“If you want to play, this is the standard.”

Huskies’ defensive standard

That hard-edged standard was long ago established at UW.

Lawyer Milloy helped carry that on as an All-American safety in the mid-1990s, and after a 15-year NFL career, he’s back in the Seattle area, seeing that defensive mindset blossom again with this new generation.

“The biggest thing when it comes to defense is, you’ve got to be willing to play together and you’ve got to be willing to hit. And that’s an attitude,” Milloy said. “You can coach all the techniques you want; but as a group, and as an individual, you’ve got to want to hit. And it looks like these guys love playing together and they love hitting. … It’s really, really fun to watch.”

Milloy quickly shot down the notion of comparing this UW defense to those from his era and earlier eras of Husky football, but he did concede this group has that kind of potential.

“The style they’re playing with, the intensity they’re playing with, was similar to the standards we held ourselves up to,” he said. “Their front line is holding it down and on the back end they’re making plays. Any time there is a guy that breaks through the line, he’s being tackled. And we haven’t had that for the last, shoot, 15 years on a consistent basis. It’s really, really encouraging.”

The Huskies’ defensive strength is a solid middle core, with stout big bodies up front (Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea), hard-hitting tone-setters at middle linebacker (Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria), and a do-everything free safety (Budda Baker).

“Azeem really brings a tremendous physical presence for us,” Choate said. “I think our interior D-linemen are going to get overlooked a little bit, but the physicality starts with those guys. They strike guys and I guarantee you there’s some guys who have sore chests after they play us.”

Comparing modern defenses to those that, say, Jim Lambright oversaw at UW is an apples-and-oranges exercise; the proliferation of spread offenses, among other changes and advancements, has added considerable stress to defenses. Still, there are themes that span any era.

“It still goes back to being tough — and tough up the middle,” said former UW assistant Dick Baird, a KJR personality and self-described Husky football ambassador. “And it’s up the middle where (this UW) defense has taken some big steps forward.”

Around their solid core, the Huskies have a mix of solid veterans up front — outside linebackers Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, defensive linemen Tani Tupou and Joe Mathis — and emerging playmakers in the secondary in Sidney Jones, Darren Gardenhire, Kevin King, Brian Clay, Ezekiel Turner and Jojo McIntosh.

Next season, the Huskies should have eight regular starters returning on defense, and the identity they’ve established — tough, physical, tenacious — should carry over too.

Stopping the best

Most impressively, UW’s defense has done it against the five most prolific offenses in the Pac-12. In five conference games, the Huskies are allowing 20.4 points; against other Pac-12 opponents, those five offenses (California, USC, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona) have combined to average 36.1 points.

The Huskies have the Pac-12’s best scoring defense, best red-zone defense and are holding opponents to 4.8 yards per play, also best in the conference. (Overall, Pac-12 offenses average 6.1 yards per play this season, up from 5.9 last season.)

What makes the Huskies’ accomplishments even more impressive is they’ve done all this after losing three first-team All-Americans from their 2014 defense — Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson — plus five other regular starters.

John Timu, UW’s starting middle linebacker from 2012-14, and now a member of the Chicago Bears, still watches the Huskies closely, and says he’s not surprised at what this defense is doing.

“Last year, you could see these young guys were ready,” he said, specifically mentioning fellow linebackers Victor and Bierria.

Timu added: “Azeem, he’s even better than me, honestly.”

The Huskies were a good defense last year, elite in some ways. What kept them from being truly great was, in large part, the adjustment to the new coaching staff under Chris Petersen.

“Last year, it was more so on the players,” Timu said. “Coach Pete, all credit goes to his staff for being patient with us. It was (a difficult transition) when you only know one way of doing things.”

This year, the Huskies have embraced an identity built on togetherness and toughness.

“I know we had a lot of stars last year,” defensive-backs coach Jimmy Lake said, “but it’s a team sport, and when all 11 guys are on the same page and when we’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and we’re all attacking the ball at the same time, and we’ve got some pretty talented players out there, we’re going to play great team defense.”

That, they have done.

Top Dawg defenses

Huskies’ five best scoring defenses in points allowed per game since 1985:
Year Pts
1991 8.4
1992 12.3
1990 12.5
1986 14.1
2015 16.9
Source: UW sports information