University of Washington

Washington’s defense still on top in Pac-12 Conference through nine weeks of the season

Chris Petersen has faced difficult questions this season about the Washington Huskies’ stop-and-start offense, for which progress has been frustratingly incremental.

He faces difficult questions about UW’s defense, too.

Like this one, on Monday: If someone had told him before the season started that the Huskies would lead the Pac-12 Conference in scoring defense after nine weeks, would he have believed it?

Hey, would you?

After Saturday’s 49-3 beating of the Arizona Wildcats, Washington ranks 15th nationally in scoring defense (16.9 points a game), 25th in yards per play allowed (4.79), 16th in yards per rush allowed (3.2), tied for 23rd in sacks per game (2.75), tied for 21st in tackles for loss per game (7.5), tied for 16th in interceptions per game (1.38) and tied for 18th in red-zone score percentage allowed (75.0).

Those numbers are made perhaps more remarkable when considering how much UW lost from its fairly stout defense a year ago. Nose tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Shaq Thompson, outside pass rushing linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and cornerback Marcus Peters each were selected in the first 44 picks of the NFL draft, and the Huskies also lost starting middle linebacker John Timu and starting defensive linemen Andrew Hudson and Evan Hudson.

And, somehow, they got better. In some areas, considerably better.

“It’s always going to start with talent,” Petersen said. “It doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are. If you don’t have the pieces in this league, you’re going to be exposed in a heartbeat. We probably had a little more talent than people thought, behind some of those good players.

“But yeah, I think going back, you go, ‘Really? You’re telling me that? That’s pretty good.’ ”

Several UW players are among the leaders in Pac-12 individual statistics, too. Senior linebacker Travis Feeney, who on Monday was named Pac-12 defensive player of the week for the second time this season after posting 11 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles against Arizona, is the conference leader in sacks with 6.5. He also ranks second in tackles for loss with 13.0.

Feeney and cornerback Sidney Jones are tied for the league lead with three forced fumbles each. Jones, Kevin King, Darren Gardenhire and Budda Baker are each among the top 10 players in the Pac-12 in passes defended.

Holding Arizona to three points — the Wildcats entered as the nation’s No. 9 team in scoring offense — might have been UW’s most impressive feat yet.

“We never try to predict things,” Petersen said, “but I don’t think we were predicting that. The first drive they went down there and got their points, and (it was) tough sledding from there. Hat’s off to those guys.”

BROWNING TOUGHS IT OUT

Petersen praised the toughness of freshman quarterback Jake Browning, who threw for 263 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona after missing the previous week’s game at Stanford due to a shoulder injury.

“I don’t know how many guys would have even played, and played at that level with what he had going on,” Petersen said. “He’s got to be able to practice to play, so I don’t think practice was all that fun for him in terms of pain tolerance and those type of things.”

EXTRA POINTS

Washington’s Nov. 14 game at Arizona State has been scheduled for a noon (PST) kickoff and will air on Pac-12 Network. ... Petersen said they’re still awaiting final word on the status of nose tackle Elijah Qualls’ ankle, which he injured on the first offensive series against Arizona. Qualls is week to week at this point, Petersen said.

christian.caple@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports

@ChristianCaple

SATURDAY: Utah (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) at UW (4-4, 2-3), 4:30 p.m., Ch. 13, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.

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