For most of last season, the Washington defense was better known for helping opposing teams win games rather than helping the Huskies win.
Seems as if the 2012 season may be a bit different.
The new-look UW defense looked less like a burden and more like a beneficial part of this team, playing an instrumental role in a closer-than-anticipated 21-12 UW win over San Diego State in front of 53,472 under the lights in the season-opener at Century Link Field.
While UW head coach Steve Sarkisian and the players were happy to get the “W,” it was obvious that lots of work awaits the Huskies next week at practice.
“All in all, it’s good to be 1-0,” Sarksian said. “But I think we’re a better football team than this.”
The Huskies will need to be better in all three facets of the game if they wish to stand a chance next week in Baton Rouge against the much tougher LSU Tigers.
Let’s recap what went down in the inaugural game.
WHY THE HUSKIES WON
Defense. No, really -- the Huskies won because of their defense.
That statement was not made last season, but the improvement is obvious in 2012. The new defensive coaching staff has preached fundamentals since it took over in the spring, and it showed Saturday.
SDSU quarterback Ryan Katz was under lots of pressure all night and was sacked four times. The UW secondary did a good job as well, holding Katz to just 128 passing yards.
The defensive play of the game came in the third quarter, when junior safety Will Shamburger picked up a fumble and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown that put the Huskies up 21-6 with 10:13 left in the third quarter.
“I’m so proud of the defense, man,” said quarterback Keith Price. “They played a great game they won the game for us, quite honestly.”
But they’ll need to improve if they figure to stand a chance against the speedy Tigers next week. The defense allowed a couple big scrambles to Katz, who finished with 100 rushing yards.
“We got plenty to clean up,” new UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said.
So does Price. Although he came out Saturday looking like a Heisman candidate by completing 11 of his first 12 passes, he disappeared for the final three quarters and never got anything going. Price said he played "terrible," even though he had no interceptions and finished with a couple of big runs.
“I just didn’t feel my normal self or comfortable at any point in the game,” said the junior, who finished 25-for-35 for 222 yards in the air. “I’ll fix that this week and make sure I’ll get back on my high horse.”
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
GOOD: The UW offense – but only in the first quarter. Price and Co. came out firing, putting up a quick 14 points as Price finished the quarter 11-of-12 with 88 yards in the air. Sophomores Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins were both heavily involved and made plays all over the field. But everything vanished after that impressive first quarter.
“It was an odd game in that we started out with so much energy and enthusiasm and we were moving the ball well offensively,” Sarkisian said. "But we got into a little bit of a funk.”
BAD: The Huskies certainly miss former bruiser Chris Polk in the backfield. Having Jesse Callier get hurt in the first quarter did not help – he is questionable next week with a right knee injury – and losing Ben Riva to a broken forearm depleted an already thin offensive line.
Sophomore Bishop Sankey carried most of the load, but didn’t really make a difference and finished with 66 yards on 22 carries with one touchdown and a fumble.
“Our rushing game needs to be a good complement to our passing game and tonight it wasn’t where it needed to be,” Sarkisian said.
UGLY: The offense in the final three quarters was a 180-degree turn from that fantastic first quarter. Price didn't find a rhythm and his line didn’t do him many favors, either. The running game didn’t make an impact.
WHERE DO THEY GO FROM HERE?
The list is long. Price must play well for four quarters, not one. The defense can’t allow quarterbacks to scramble for 100 yards. And Sankey will really need to make more of an impact, especially with Callier doubtful.
“Of course you can’t be satisfied with this,” said Seferian-Jenkins, who finished with a game-high 82 receiving yards. “We got the win – that’s the first thing we want to do – but our overall performance can be a lot better. Everyone knows we can do a lot better.”
There is tremendous room for improvement -- whether it happens in one week is up in the air. But Huskies fans need to be at least a little happy with the new-look defense. Don’t expect this group to be giving up more than 700 yards in one game.
“We’re not going to be the defense of the past,” said freshman linebacker Travis Feeney, who finished with five tackles and a forced fumbled in his Husky debut. “We’re going to step it up this year and make sure our defense is good. We’re going to be on top of things, as we were today; always yelling of for the ball, always stripping, always forcing turnovers. Turnovers win the game. That’s what we did and it won us the game.”