Huskies upset of No. 8 Stanford all on its defense
Justin Wilcox was plucked from Tennessee and brought to Washington to be the defensive coordinator charged with rebuilding a beleaguered Huskies defense that became a national punch line a season ago.
Just a few weeks back, it still looked like a major work in progress when LSU overran the Huskies in a 41-3 rout down on the Bayou.
But the amount of progress Wilcox was able to make between Sept. 8 and Thursday night was staggering as the Huskies shut down No. 8 Stanford in a 17-13 upset. Albeit with a different cast, the Cardinal steamrolled Washington (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) to the tune of 446 yards rushing and 65 points a year ago.
On Thursday, there was still a 65 in the Stanford stat column, but this time that was all the Huskies would allow on the ground. It was the fewest yards rushing produced by Stanford since the 2007 season - also the same year the Cardinal last went without an offensive touchdown.
Washington fans stormed out of the stands to celebrate the Huskies' first win over a Top 10 foe since 2009 - at the very beginning of Steve Sarkisian's tenure as the Huskies head coach.
''The kids are believing, they're dialing into what we're trying to get down,'' Sarkisian said. ''That's one of the biggest keys. Everybody knows X's and O's, obviously our guys are pretty bright, but they get the kids to believe, they're excellent teachers, they communicate well and at the end of the day guys are doing what they're supposed to do and they tackle when they're getting there.''
Because Stanford (3-1, 1-1) was able to run so easily through the Huskies defense a season ago, what Wilcox and his defense accomplished was even more stunning. Yes, there was no Andrew Luck directing the Cardinal offense and first-year quarterback Josh Nunes missed many throws that could have loosened up the Huskies defense.
Wilcox went for the unconventional and dared the Cardinal to try and beat him through the air. There was good reason Wilcox stacked the box and tried to make Stanford throw over the top. In the previous four Stanford victories, the Huskies had allowed 244, 321, 278 and 446 yards rushing in each of the losses, an average of 322 yards per game.
Washington essentially morphed into a 4-4 defense and sometimes brought another defensive back down to put nine defenders near the line of scrimmage. Often it was freshman Shaq Thompson, whom Wilcox has used as a hybrid safety/linebacker, who moved in as the eighth guy to provide run support, while also using defensive end Talia Crichton as more of a linebacker.
But the surprising move Wilcox made was often dropping Travis Feeney back as the last guy in the secondary. Feeney arrived at Washington with the intention of being a defensive back but with injuries to the linebackers corps started making the transition closer to the line of scrimmage. Believing Stanford couldn't throw over the top of them, Wilcox made the gamble of having more of a tackler and less of a coverage defender in the back.
''A team like Stanford comes into town and you're not going to sit there and play cover two all day,'' Wilcox said. ''You're going to make them try and beat you throwing the ball outside and that's what we tried to do.''
Nunes, making the first road start of his career, simply couldn't make the throws that were available. He wasn't helped by a number of critical drops, none bigger than Ty Montgomery's at the Washington 5 with just over 2 minutes remaining. But Nunes hit just 39 percent of his throws in the first half and Washington never had to respect the Cardinal's passing game.
Additionally, Washington won first down against Stanford's run game. Last year on The Farm, the Cardinal rushed for 248 yards on 24 first-down rushes with four of 15 yards or longer, including runs of 45, 70 and 34 yards. On Thursday, Stanford gained a total of 37 yards rushing on first down on just 14 carries, with none of the carries going for longer than 7 yards and nine of them for less than 5 yards.
''We knew they were going to be physical. We wanted to play violent and exceed their physicality and I think we did a good job doing that,'' Washington safety Justin Glenn said.