Washington expected to be better on defense in defensive coordinator Nick Holt's second year. At times it was. But for the most part, it wasn't.
The Huskies ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring defense (31.2 points per game) and seventh in total defense (401.2 yards per game). Both totals are worse than 2009. The Huskies did play better down the stretch, but that that might have been a function of less competition: UCLA, California and Washington State.
Still, winning those final three games earned the Huskies their first bowl berth since 2002 and a shot at redemption for perhaps the lowest moment of the season: The 56-21 humbling delivered in Husky Stadium by Nebraska. That game unmasked the Huskies as a team not yet ready to take a step forward back into the national picture.
Will a Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl rematch provide an opportunity to make an opposite statement? We checked in with Holt to get his take.
What's your overall feeling on how the defense played this season?
Nick Holt: We got better as the season went on, more confident in what we were trying to do. Our problems started when we got some guys hurt upfront, losing two starters on the defensive line [DT Cameron Elisara and DE Talia Crichton]. We didn't have a lot of depth going into the season. That was one of our worries going into the season -- hey, we've got to stay healthy for us to be a solid defense, not a great defense. We couldn't lose anybody. Sure enough, we lose two defensive starters by mid-October. But anyway, we got better as we went back and re-focused on some of the simple calls we have. We just started doing some of the ordinary stuff a lot better. Getting off blocks. Tackling. Stuff that we thought we were good at, or better than we have been. It really started quite honestly with Nebraska. We just didn't do the fundamentals very well [in that game]. We got distracted. Maybe guys were trying too hard. Throughout the course of the year, we just went back to teaching and coaching, the ordinary things. And we just got better. Nothing flashy. We're really not that flashy. We just played solid tough defense, at times.
The defense played better over the final three games: Who were some guys who took a step forward over those final three games?
NH: Well, the last four or five games of the season, I think our corners, our two starting corners [Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson], played really solid football. Tackling and playing the ball, those two guys come to mind. I think a couple of in the defensive line in played better as the season went on. Everrette Thompson was more consistent and more physical. And I think our true freshman, [defensive end] Hau'oli Jamora, we always thought he would be a good player, and he's not huge, but he was very effective. And then [defensive tackle] Semisi Tokolahi, he played the last four or five games and gave us some added girth inside. He was really solid for us. Unfortunately, he got hurt in Washington State, broke his leg, so he won't be able to play in the bowl game. Those guys come to mind. [Linebacker] Mason Foster, week-in and week out, played well. The same with [strong safety] Nate Williams.
The Nebraska game on Sept. 18: What went wrong?
NH: Number one, we didn't play very well up front, especially our front four. We just weren't aggressive. We got knocked off the ball. We played soft, quite honestly. When that happens, it doesn't matter what you do with the linebackers and defensive backs. They can't cover up that stuff. When you are letting a team basically run an inside zone play for eight, nine or 10 yards a pop, and you are not stopping it with your base defenses, something is up, something is wrong. That game opened our eyes. We've got to get back to being physical. We just got distracted with maybe all the option stuff, trying to do too much. We lost the emphasis of good fundamentals. Number two, we didn't tackle very well. At all. We let some runs get out on us with some arm tackles. We gave away a lot of explosion plays where we had guys there on the line of scrimmage, and we just didn't make the tackle. We lost our leverage, or missed a tackle. Number three, we didn't play very well on third down. We had a couple of third and longs, and they ran some rudimentary things, and we missed tackles. Some slants and some other things. We had guys out there. But that's just the way it is right now in our program. We didn't do some of the fundamental football stuff in that game very well. We really had to go back and teach some stuff, get back to the fundamentals.
You guys bounced back pretty well, though, after a bye, winning at USC.
NH: We didn't lose patience with our kids. We just coached them up and coached them up, and they got better. And in the future we will be a lot better if we keep recruiting well.
What's your feeling on your guys' mindset for a rematch with Nebraska?
NH: I think they're motivated to play well. I think they are excited about the opportunity to just be in a bowl game and finishing the season strong. I think they would be motivated regardless of who they're playing. But we are playing Nebraska, and I think their focus is, hey, we didn't play very well the first time. They got after our butts a little bit. We need to play better. We need to make this a better football game than in was in September. I think that's the mindset.
What's the first priority for slowing down the Cornhuskers this time around?
NH: You've got to stop their running backs first, really. They have all these trick plays and stuff, but looking back on it, I think their running backs -- No. 10 and No. 22 [Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead] -- are really good football players. Their offensive line is good. So you got to stop the two running backs first and then you've got to contain the quarterback. You can't let him get 80 yards on a run or run 60 yards for a touchdown. He might get a couple of yards here and there, but you've got contain him, contain plays with him scrambling, or busting the line with a quarterback run. And then no gimmick-type plays. They do have some nice gimmicks. They get in the wildcat formation and the running back throws long balls for touchdowns and things like that. They are a run team, but because they are so effective running the ball, their play-action is really good. Guys get open.
What's the No. 1 off-season priority to get better in 2011?
NH: Recruiting. But that being said, our linemen in our program -- defensive linemen and offensive lineman -- need to get bigger and stronger and faster. Our front seven on defense -- linebackers and defensive line -- we need to get bigger and stronger and faster. We're getting there. But that's why we are where we are right now. Our interior guys, whether it's on offense or defense, we need to get more physical, we need to get bigger. We're getting there, but we're playing some young guys. Those young guys should be redshirting, but we don't have that luxury. The weight room is huge for us this year.
How close are you guys talent-wise -- one recruiting class, two more recruiting classes -- to being where you want to be?
NH: I think we have some talented guys, especially on offense. Our running backs and our receivers are as good as there are. But we're a ways away at the non-glamor positions. But those non-glamor positions are where you win championships: up front. Our guys are battling. But we're not there. Our guys are making progress. How long? Hopefully, it's not long, but quite honestly it's a process -- it's another two or three years before you're really good up front.