University of Washington

Chris Petersen highlights three standouts on Huskies’ young defense

Standing on the field at Husky Stadium just minutes after the end of practice on Wednesday, Washington head coach Chris Petersen met with the media for the last time before Friday’s game against Oregon State.

Petersen touched on several topics, including an evaluation of the Huskies defense and whether he pays attention to fan criticism.

Here are three takeaways:

A defensive rebuild

It’s a credit to the top-level defenses the Huskies have recently fielded that this season is considered a step back. UW is still near the top of the Pac-12 defensively, ranking fifth in yards allowed per game (375.3) and points per game (22.8).

But the Huskies are used to not only leading the conference but putting together one of the best defenses in the country. Last season, they had the top scoring defense (16.4 ppg) and total defense (306.2 ypg) in the Pac-12. Those numbers put UW in the top-15 nationally in both categories, including sixth in scoring defense.

This season, the Huskies have been rebuilding. They’ve had to replace nine starters, including all four starting cornerbacks and safeties and both starting inside linebackers. That’s led to some growing pains in the form of missed assignments, penalties and sometimes, in the case of Utah, surrendering two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that each lasted more than 5 minutes.

Petersen was asked about the defense’s progress. Mainly, at this point in the season, are the Huskies where he hoped they’d be?

“We’ve been used to playing elite, elite defense around here,” Petersen said. “When there’s a step back there, you’re never good. We’re trying to be elite at every position on every side of the ball in every phase. I think there’s some guys that have really taken a step forward and been impressive.”

Here are the three players Petersen named:

Freshman Trent McDuffie looks like UW’s next great cornerback. He didn’t enroll early but worked his way up the depth chart to become a starter. McDuffie has played in every game this season. He started for the first time against Hawaii when UW opened in a package with six defensive backs. He then started over redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon against BYU and has remained there ever since. He has 33 tackles, one forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries on the season.

Petersen said defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike has been “playing some lights out football.” Onwuzurilke has recorded 36 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack and one blocked kick this season. In the Huskies’ last two games — losses to Oregon and Utah — he totaled 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and his first and only half sack.

Petersen also mentioned redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa, who has played in every game. He finished with a season-high five tackles at Stanford then matched that total during the loss to Oregon, finishing with five tackles and a tackle for loss.

“There’s really good football on that side, but it is a team game,” Petersen said. “Everybody has to play on a consistent level for us to take the step that we want to.”

First CFP rankings revealed

The first College Football Playoff rankings were revealed on Tuesday night. Oregon and Utah — the Huskies last two opponents — were ranked No. 7 and No. 8, respectively. They were the only ranked teams from the Pac-12.

UW once held double-digit leads over both Oregon and Utah before struggling in the fourth quarter. The Huskies let both games slip away, falling to the Ducks 35-31 and losing to the Utes 33-28.

“Everybody wants to bash on the Pac-12, but I’ve thought differently and I have for a while,” Petersen said. “I don’t really pay attention to all (the rankings). What I pay attention to is I know we play some pretty good teams and we played them pretty close. We’ve also played some other teams that maybe have been close that didn’t need to be close or we lost games that we shouldn’t have.”

Fan criticism

Petersen was also asked about the team facing criticism from fans, especially on social media. The disappointment has increased lately after two straight losses dropped the Huskies to 5-4 on the season.

“That’s what fans do,” Petersen said. “They care about their team, they get frustrated, they want to win. Show me a fan base that doesn’t do that, they’re probably not real fans.”

But Petersen said he doesn’t pay attention to the chatter.

“It’s just the nature of sports,” he said. “That’s how it goes. I love the passion. I don’t listen to it and there isn’t a guy on our team that pays attention to any of that stuff. I don’t know how many times I can talk about that, why would you do that. I wouldn’t even know that’s going on unless it’s you bringing that negativity my way.”

Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for PennLive.com. A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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