CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: The case for UW Huskies’ defense being surprisingly good

Oct 27, 2023, 10:43 AM

UW Huskies...

Mishael Powell of the Washington Huskies intercepts a pass and scores a touchdown on Oct. 21, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — When he intercepted Trenton Bourguet’s fourth-down throw and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown, Mishael Powell didn’t just help the UW  Huskies win another fraught game against Arizona State.

He also forced us to consider, in the wake of a 15-7 victory, whether Washington’s defense might actually be …

Well …

Maybe … kinda … good?

Powell’s late pick-6 helps No. 5 UW Huskies survive ASU 15-7

Forget for a moment about the Huskies’ nationally elite offense, and how surprisingly helpless it appeared at times against the Sun Devils. It’s newsworthy whenever Michael Penix Jr. throws two interceptions and no touchdown passes, sure, and even more so when the Huskies fail to score an offensive touchdown at all.

But perhaps more focus should be assigned not only to the fact that Washington still won the game, but how it won the game: on the backs of a defense that was often not good enough last season to even complement its offense, let alone bail it out when yards and points were in short supply.

When was the last time the UW Huskies’ defense nearly single-handedly won them a game, anyway? I’d say Oregon State in 2019, a slugfest UW won 19-7 by holding the Beavers to six first downs, 2.4 yards per play and zero offensive points (like the Huskies against the Sun Devils, OSU’s lone touchdown came on an interception return).

They’ve done it quietly, playing in the shadow of a high-powered offense, but Washington’s defense is threatening to finish this season not just better than it was a year ago — that low bar has been cleared — but maybe also as a legitimate top-25 unit.

And yes, yes, all they did Saturday was stymie one of the nation’s worst offenses, playing with its third-string quarterback, and still missed 16 tackles and needed a dubious fourth-down decision (and an even more dubious pass-interference no-call) to finish it off.

But it wasn’t just Saturday. Through seven games, the Huskies rank 23rd nationally in points allowed per drive, per the website bcftoys.com, and 14th nationally in points allowed per drive with short starting field position (possessions that begin 60 or fewer yards from the end zone). UW also ranks 24th nationally in stop rate — the percentage of drives on which the opposing offense does not score — and, for the more traditional crowd, also ranks 24th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 18.9 points per game after yielding 25.8 in 2022.

They’re doing a better job keeping opponents off the scoreboard than they are preventing them from moving the ball. UW allows 5.19 yards per play, tied for 43rd in FBS — fine, but not great — and, interestingly, ranks only 58th in FBS in percentage of available yards allowed, per bcftoys.com, with garbage time filtered out.

Even when opposing offenses move the chains against the Huskies, they don’t score all that many points, relatively speaking. The last two weeks, in particular, it’s helped that rather than settle for field goals, both Oregon and Arizona State chose to go for a few crucial fourth downs, and failed in three red-zone situations (including Powell’s pick-six). ASU also missed a field goal and had one blocked.

One number that helps explain how the Huskies are able to bend but not break: they’ve allowed only 22 plays this season of 20 yards or more, tied for 18th-fewest in FBS. None of those have been rushes.

Most encouraging is that the Huskies seem to have not only addressed last season’s most glaring deficiency — pass defense — but turned it into a relative strength. After finishing 111th nationally in passing efficiency defense last season, the Huskies rank 18th so far this year, and also rank 18th in expected points added (EPA) per opponent dropback, per cfb-graphs.com. They’re tied for 16th in FBS in yards per pass attempt allowed, and have intercepted nine passes in seven games, tied for 14th nationally and two more than their 2022 season total (although their turnover luck hasn’t been all good: UW is one of just four FBS teams yet to recover a fumble, and its opponents have fumbled only three times, tied for second-fewest nationally).

One year after totaling 33 passes defended, fewest in Power 5, the Huskies already have 43, and rank seventh in FBS in passes defended per game. Powell leads the team with seven, one off the Pac-12 lead. Jabbar Muhammad is right behind with six, backup cornerback Thaddeus Dixon has five, and Elijah Jackson, Kam Fabiculanan and Davon Banks have four apiece.

Two players led UW with four passes defended last season, and one of them was a defensive tackle.

Muhammad, a junior transfer from Oklahoma State, leads the team with eight forced incompletions, per Pro Football Focus. No Husky had more than five last season, and UW’s seven-game total of 37 also dwarfs last season’s 13-game output (20). Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 14 of their 35 attempts when targeting Muhammad in coverage, per PFF, with a long gain of 25 yards and only three completions of 10 yards or more.

Even more illustrative of how much more active the Huskies’ pass defense has been this season: they’ve recorded a forced incompletion on 13.4 percent of targets, per PFF, compared to 5.2 percent in 2022.

Health is a major factor. Last season, every one of UW’s starting defensive backs missed some time due to injury, and more than half the season passed before the Huskies had their entire starting group intact for a full game. Some, like cornerback Jordan Perryman, played hurt even when available. This year, four of UW’s five secondary starters have played in every game, and the Huskies just regained senior safety Asa Turner, who effectively missed four games while recovering from a hand injury.

The transfer portal also allowed coaches to approach the offseason the same way an NFL team might: by assessing their needs and seeking upgrades via free agency. More than anything else, the Huskies needed a veteran cornerback, with Perryman, another one-year solution, moving on, and precious little experience returning otherwise.

Muhammad, a regular starter at Oklahoma State in 2022, fit perfectly.

“I knew they had a lot of pieces coming back,” Muhammad said Tuesday. “It was going to be an older team, a lot of fifth- and sixth-year guys. My role was just to come in here and take the corner room under my wing, and try to get them the knowledge that I have, knowing they have a lot of talent coming back.”

Adding Muhammad allowed coaches to shift Powell from cornerback to the “husky” nickel position, which allowed them to move senior Dominique Hampton from husky back to safety, alongside Turner. Elijah Jackson, a fourth-year sophomore, won the other starting cornerback job, and overcame a rough season debut against Boise State to make several critical plays down the stretch against both Arizona and Arizona State.

Even in Turner’s absence, fifth-year utility player Kam Fabiculanan has proven to be an asset, playing the ninth-most snaps of any defensive player while earning the team’s third-highest defensive grade from PFF (though his status is unclear due to injury).

“I would say just adjusting to a new scheme, having a second year under our belt, getting used to this scheme,” said Powell, assessing differences between this year and last, also noting the luxury of being able to move both him and Hampton to new positions. Plus: “Coach (Chuck) Morrell putting in different little play calls that cater to certain players.”

Last season, linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio said, “if something was changed, we spent too much time figuring, ‘why do we need it changed?’ or having a hard time adapting. This year, if something gets changed, it’s like, ‘it’s new, but it’s OK. We’ll tak through it.’ We work better as a unit, collectively, working at certain changes. It’s definitely making us play faster and making us be more adaptive to offensive schemes.”

The statistical category in which UW is most surprisingly deficient: sacks. The Huskies have only seven, tied for second-fewest in FBS, and starting edge rushers Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui have combined for only three. Yet neither Morrell, Trice or ZTF seem particularly concerned about it. Morrell points to opponent completion percentage — 57.6, tied for 35th in FBS — as a byproduct of the Huskies’ pass rush

“Bralen Trice barreling down at you, hits you early in the game, the rest of the game you are thinking about nothing but about, ‘how fast can I get the ball out of my hands?’” Morrell said. “Bralen’s having a huge impact. ZTF is having a huge impact. People are literally trying to have the ball come out of their hands as fast as they can.”

Tupuola-Fetui agreed: “I think it’s quality tape that we put on. At the end of the day, we’re playing a team-style defense. Selfishly, I would like to have more sacks, but we’re 7-0. I can’t complain about the results so far.”

He believes opposing offenses still have to game-plan for him and Trice.

“Whether we’re giving them a shorter clock or not letting them finish their dropbacks, things like that, keeping them in the pocket — there’s different ways to affect the quarterback than sacks,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “Obviously, we want the negative play, and maybe a turnover and a chance at that. But if he’s throwing a duck up to our DBs right now, I think that’s a pretty good shot at a turnover, as well.”

(See: first half, Cal game.)

The run defense has not been as efficient, or as impressive. That’s partially because the Huskies have missed 88 tackles, per PFF, 10th-most in the Pac-12 behind only Oregon State (96) and USC (90). They’re 91st in FBS in defensive EPA per rush, and tied for 71st in yards per rush allowed. But the Huskies also have allowed 10-plus yards on only 22 of their opponents’ 232 rushing attempts, at least forcing opposing offenses to string together first downs and earn their way into the red zone.

That was true even as they allowed 541 yards in their victory over Oregon; though not a banner performance by UW, the Ducks averaged a manageable 6.4 yards per play, which is 1.5 yards per play fewer than their season average.

Of course, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Arizona’s Noah Fifita are the only quarterbacks UW has faced who currently rank among the nation’s top-70 in completion percentage, and, similarly, Oregon and Arizona are the only top-50 scoring offenses the Huskies have faced.

If ever Washington’s defense was going to be called upon to deliver a victory, Arizona State was an ideal opponent against which to do so.

But your memory does not deceive you: that was the very same Trenton Bourguet who tossed three touchdown passes and helped ASU score 38 offensive points against the Huskies in Tempe last season.

Even if Washington’s defense remains a work in progress, the progress deserves attention.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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