Remember when playing the Washington used to be fun? I seem to remember Jahvid Best running for some insane number of yards to secure a winless season for the Huskies. And wasn't there some player driving an injury cart around the field that one time? I think Joe Ayoob might have even been there once or twice. Ah well, that was long ago.
Now the Bears will try to break out of an ugly losing streak against the Huskies, who looked vulnerable after a couple of big names moved on to the NFL. But Chris Petersen is Chris Petersen, and he has his team looking dangerous after stumbling in week one. So whom does he have lined up to challenge the Bear Raid?
The Story so Far...
We're deep enough into the season that trends from last season start to lose their value, but in the case of Washington it's worthwhile to note who's missing from the 8-4 squad a year ago. LB Shaq Thompson, for example, will never again return a fumble 100 yards for a touchdown against Cal (or torture them in one of the many ways that he did throughout his college career). He's gone to the NFL, along with fellow first-rounders NT Danny Shelton and CB Marcus Peters. Also gone are LB Hau'oli Kikaha and his 19 sacks, as well as DE Andrew Hudson and his 12.5. Phew.
So what does that leave the Huskies? Amazingly, they still have some experience on defense, particularly in the secondary. This new-look crew allowed just 11 points per game (although shutting out Sacramento State doesn't tell us that much), and they've resolved some of last year's struggles defending against the pass. They held a Utah State team that outgained Utah a week earlier to just 254 yards of offense, and recorded two interceptions along the way.
Starters: Jr #5 Joe Mathis, So #11 Elijah Qualls, Sr #90 Taniela Tupou
All three starters from last year's defensive line are gone, but these three all saw significant playing time last season. DC Pete Kwiatkowski likes to rotate his linemen, which means three redshirt freshmen also see frequent reps on the line. These guys have had some trouble getting into the backfield so far, which should be a relief for Jared Goff and his sprained ankle. Mathis is the most disruptive guy in the group, owning three TFLs and one of the Huskies' three sacks this season.
Starters: Sr #41 Travis Feeney, So #36 Azeem Victor, So #7 Keishawn Bierria, Sr #42 Cory Littleton
Losing Thompson, Kikaha, and leading tackler John Timu certainly hurts, especially considering the importance of linebackers in the Huskies' 3-4 scheme. Their looks will be a little bit more traditional than the 3-3-5 Cal has faced for much of their OOC schedule, but the linebackers will mix up their responsibilities to confuse the offense. Lots of these guys, as with the DL, saw a good deal of playing time last year. Look for Cory Littleton to lead this unit and to build on his team-leading 3.5 tackles for loss.
Also worth noting is that frenemy of the program Bob Gregory coaches the linebackers in addition to his duties as assistant HC. This young unit may bend, but under his tutelage it shall not break.
Starters: Sr #35 Brian Clay, So #32 Budda Baker, So #26 Sidney Jones, So #20 Kevin King OR So #3 Darren Gardenhire
Here's where things get interesting. Aside from Marcus Peters dismissal from the team last fall, this secondary returns almost every significant piece. As I mentioned before, these guys have already shown signs of improvement from a pretty dismal pass defense last year, so the level of experience is paying off. Safety Budda Baker is the big name here, but his status is somewhat in doubt after hurting his ankle against Utah State. The Huskies would love to have him back as the defensive anchor, but they'll replace him with either junior Brandon Beaver or redshirt freshman JoJo McIntosh if he isn't ready to go. Kevin King and Darren Gardenhire are both listed as potential starters at cornerback, but my money is on King based on the fact that he owns all three of the Huskies' interceptions.
For all that it lost this offseason, this defense isn't terribly green. They've performed admirably through three weeks, but the Bear Raid will provide a much tougher test than anything they've seen so far. My concern for this defense is that they've had trouble getting pressure on the quarterback, and Goff showed a little bit of elusiveness in the face of a hard rush from Texas. If they can't knock him down, you'll be happy you bet the over. My prediction? Kenny Lawler makes the highlight reel.