Josh Shirley tallied three sacks against Illinois and led the UW’s small pass rush package against the Illini last weekend.
Josh Shirley tallied three sacks against Illinois and led the UW’s small pass rush package against the Illini last weekend.Photo by Joshua Bessex
Josh Shirley doesn’t reveal too much.
The junior defensive end speaks at just above a whisper, giving no deep insight into the inner workings of his mind or his team. He answers questions just skin deep, in mundane bursts of a sentence or two. He doesn’t give too much away, just like the No. 17 Washington football team’s entire defensive unit.
While the UW offense gobbles up yards on the ground and through the air, the UW defense is busy building a wall around the end zone. Heading into Saturday’s matchup with Idaho State at noon, the Huskies have relinquished 15 points per game, tied for 20th in the nation, and only one passing touchdown. Not too bad for a defense that was statistically the worst one in school history just two seasons ago. But, as is typical for coaches and players, the Huskies think they could be better.
“I think being a football player, and a football team, it’s about how do you improve, how do you play better,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “Whether we’re playing this week, next week, last week, first week, it’s always about how do you improve as a player, as a defense, as a team. That’s all we’re concerned with.”
After the Huskies overhauled their defensive staff following the 2011 Alamo Bowl debacle, Wilcox and the UW defense have done nothing but improve. Between 2011 and 2012, the Huskies jumped at least 15 spots in the national rankings in rushing, passing, pass efficiency, total, and scoring defense. Under former defensive coordinator Nick Holt, the Huskies were 116th in the nation in passing defense, giving up 284.62 yards per game through the air. In Wilcox’s first year, they jumped up to 23rd and gave up 197.31 yards per game. This season, they’re even better at 181.3 yards per contest so far.
“Our guys, since we’ve been here they’ve done a great job of trying to do what we ask them to do,” Wilcox said. “We’re far from perfect, but they’ve bought in, and come to meetings ready to work, and I think that’s part of the culture that Coach Sarkisian has developed here.”
It took opponents 95 minutes and 46 seconds to score a touchdown against the UW this season. The Huskies kept Boise State out of the end zone for the first time since 1997 and gave up their first touchdown of the season in the third quarter last week against Illinois on a two-yard rush from Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
While the UW plays fast and loose with the yardage sometimes, it has a certain knack for clutch plays on third down and in the red zone. The Huskies allow 336.5 yards per game, but are keeping opponents to a 41 percent conversion rate on third downs and just a 33 percent touchdown rate within the UW’s 20-yard line.
Pass rush was a concern for the Huskies moving into this season and it showed in the season opener. The UW got minimal pressure on Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick and tallied no sacks. However, after the coaching staff took an unorthodox approach to the pass rush against Illinois, things seem to be looking up for the UW defensive front. To combat Illinois’ four and five receiver sets, the Huskies dialed up a pass rush that used much smaller, but faster, defensive ends all pressuring the quarterback. Shirley thrived in the small package and was involved in all four of the UW’s sacks, getting credit for two solo sacks and two half sacks. Linebacker Travis Feeney even got some time at defensive end in the small package.
“It was fun [rushing the quarterback],” Feeney said. “I wish I could have gotten a sack though. It was good to get our big guys some sacks. It’s good to give those guys a confidence boost.”
While the defensive numbers for the Huskies are impressive through nonconference play, the offenses of the Pac-12 are another beast. Saturday is the UW’s final tuneup before matching up with Arizona in the conference opener. Last season, the Wildcats scorched the Huskies for 533 yards and 52 points. If the Huskies are looking for improvement, that will be a good place to start.
Reach Sports Editor Thuc Nhi Nguyen at email@example.com. Twitter: @thucnhi21
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