SEATTLE (AP) — Maligned for much of last year when it was among the worst units in the country, Washington's defense is now the reason for the Huskies' longest regular season win streak in more than a decade.
Heading into Friday's Apple Cup against rival Washington State, the Huskies defense has become a stout unit that doesn't give up points very easily.
After getting routed by Arizona last month and giving up 52 points for the second time this season, Washington looked like the same leaky defense from the past.
But the recent surge of four straight wins, potentially an eight-win season and likely a return to the rankings is thanks to the defense.
"It just took us a little time to mature on offense. But the end result is, (the defense) gained confidence by us playing that way," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday. " . Knowing that we were going to lean on them, sometimes that's empowering. They felt that, and they've really responded. The way they've been playing this last month of the season has been tremendous."
Washington (7-4, 5-3) will head to Pullman to face the Cougars not having allowed more than 17 points in any of its last four games. It hasn't been against the toughest competition, but the improvement of the Huskies defense under first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been startling.
A year ago, the Huskies gave up nearly 36 points and more than 450 yards per game. This year, the Huskies are allowing just 23 points and 350 yards per game.
Some of it is better personnel. Much of the improvement is due to better schemes under Wilcox.
The biggest improvement is with Washington's pass defense, which ranks ninth in the country and second in the Pac-12 and is giving up just 174 yards per game. While cornerback Desmond Trufant has remained the steady leader of the secondary, the emergence of Marcus Peters as the cornerback opposite Trufant and the athleticism of freshmen Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson have allowed the Huskies to stay in their base defense while continuing to play strong pass defense.
"It's been good to us that way," Sarkisian said. "We still go to some of our nickel stuff which has been good to us as well. ... But all in all, our base defense is something that is pretty well-versed to play against anything."
That improved pass defense will get possibly its strongest test from Washington State. While the Cougars pass game has yet to match the vaunted productivity coach Mike Leach had while at Texas Tech, it's still a unique style and Washington has struggled facing unique offenses this year. The Huskies gave up 52 points each to Arizona and Oregon, which run unconventional spread offenses.
"I think at the end of the day the statistics are just a matter of execution," Wilcox said. "You execute well, the statistics are going to be better."
While a bowl berth is already secured for the Huskies, entering the postseason on a five-game win streak could make Washington even more appealing when the selections are finally made. Washington last won five straight regular season games in 2000 when it won its last seven conference games on its way to a Rose Bowl berth.
The Huskies offense has finally awakened the past two weeks, scoring 34 points against Utah and 38 last Saturday in a blowout win over lowly Colorado. After scuffling through most of the season, Keith Price now has three straight games with at least 230 yards passing and his eight touchdowns the last three weeks matched his entire total for the first eight games of this season.
"The rapport with the receiving corps, the anticipation and understanding coverages and where guys are going to go has just really improved in the last month," Sarkisian said. "Again, that's a sign of a guy willing to work, willing to try and get better, and taking to coaching."