There’s a chance you might have forgotten that the Washington Huskies biggest concern was their defensive secondary.
After losing their starting corners — Marcus Peters was suspended by coach Chris Petersen after a sideline incident in the Eastern game, while Jermaine Kelly fractured his ankle in practice — three of the four cornerbacks in rotation were true freshman.
But between two defensive touchdowns by Shaq Thompson and yielding a relatively low amount of passing yards Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt, it was easy to forget the 475-yard drubbing Eastern Washington put on the Huskies last week.
Sure, the secondary was shaky at times — redshirt senior Travell Dixon, who started, got burned twice for two touchdowns by Geronimo Allison. They were the only two touchdowns scored by the Illini in Washington’s 44-19 win over Illinois.
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But the other three — Sidney Jones, Naijiel Hale, and Darren Gardenhire — all held their ground.
Petersen was thoroughly impressed with Jones, who finished with three tackles in his first career start.
“We’ve liked his demeanor since he’s got here. He’s just a competitor,” Petersen said. “You can almost predict a little bit of success with just their demeanor and how they go about competing and how they step up in practice and what they look like in pre-game. I knew he’d play well today. I didn’t know if he’d make all the plays but I knew he’d play well.”
Though, things didn’t start all that well, and it appeared early on that the Huskies might have been heading in the same direction as what Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams had done to them Sept. 6.
Illinois’ Lunt completed five of six passes for 40 yards on the Illini’s opening possession, which reached the Huskies’ 8-yard line. But the Huskies held Illinois to a field goal by forcing an incompletion on third-and-5.
The Huskies’ secondary — helped by pressure from the Washington defensive line — caused Lunt to go 5-for-10 the rest of the half, including a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown by Thompson.
On Illinois’ opening possession of the third quarter, Jones and sophomore safety Kevin King teamed up to force a fumble by Illini running back Josh Ferguson, that was recovered by Hau’oli Kikaha.
Though it won’t show in the stat book, Hale halted an Illinois drive in the second quarter with his pass coverage. Though Lunt completed a 15-yard pass to Allison on a comeback route, Hale forced the receiver out of bounds two yards short of a first down.
He also showed toughness in run support when he stuffed Ferguson for a 1-yard loss on a cornerback blitz near the end of the third quarter.
Dixon had a similar opportunity with the Huskies leading 35-5 with three minutes left in the half.
Dixon was called for pass interference on Allison on third-and-7, which led to him being burned by Allison for a 60-yard touchdown on the following play.
Dixon let Allison, who finished with six catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns, slip behind him on a streak route.
Dixon was beat again by the Lunt-Allison combo in the third quarter on a 27-yard score at the back of the end zone.
Dixon had seen action in only five games in two seasons with the Huskies — he redshirted in 2012 — and the inexperience showed.
But the difference with the freshmen, Thompson said, was their mental approach to the game. Rather than being thrust into action, like they were against Eastern, Thompson and other players on defense helped coach the young defensive backs with reassurance.
“We really helped them out with talking about confidence,” Thompson said. “We told them nobody is better than them. And that’s what it felt like out there. And they got better. The young guys stepped up.”
Though they gave up more than 200 passing yards, it was a step in the right direction for the Huskies’ secondary — and the defense in general — which drew a healthy amount of criticism after their performance against Eastern.
“I think after (the) Eastern game, there was a lot of talk, talking about how we’re young and everything,” King said. “We wanted to show that you can’t use that as an excuse. We can play with the best and I think it really showed today.”