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Washington vs. Oregon: Is the Huskies' Defense for real?

Justin Wilcox has the Washington Huskies playing great defense, but are they for real? We'll find out Saturday night.

Otto Greule Jr - Getty Images

Is this Huskies defense for real, or is it all just smoke and mirrors? One way or the other, we'll know by Sunday morning.

It would be so easy to believe that the defense for Washington has made a complete turnaround, that new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox simplified the schemes and found out how to reach the players, turning one of the country's worst units into a strength.

That sure looked like the case against Stanford, as the Huskies defense took the No. 8 team in the country behind a woodshed, not allowing an offensive touchdown and forcing 7 three-and-outs against the same team that put up 65 on them just a year ago.

But don't believe it just yet, for while the Huskies have been winning on the strength of their defense, every performance - good and bad - has come with a caveat. From bad quarterback play (Stanford) to being downright bad (San Diego State, Portland State) all of the UW's good defensive performances come with an asterisk.

As does the 40 points they gave up on the road to LSU, a number that can be forgiven, given the context of the opponent, setting, and offensive ineptitude.

The truth is it's too early to say how much progress the Huskies have made on the defensive side of the ball, but there are some encouraging signs.

Coach Steve Sarkisian answered a question this week on the Pac-12 coaches conference call by singling out the linebackers for their performance. Pressed for details he named John Timu, Thomas Tutogi, Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson as standouts.

So, of the group that is playing well we have a true sophomore, a second year transfer who played only sparingly in the past, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman who can line up anywhere from linebacker to cornerback.

If the defense has improved, it makes sense why. The team is playing new, and presumably better players. Or, it's playing young players who are a year older and more experienced.

And so we come to Oregon and their Ferrari of an offense. There's no hiding from a showdown with the fastest team in the west, and the true judgment of UW's defense will be rendered in the unfriendly confines of Autzen Stadium.

Every part of the Huskies revamped defense will be tested on Saturday. The UW has made a concerted effort to get faster on defense with smaller, faster defensive linemen and linebackers.

We'll see if they've got what it takes going up against the speediest offense at any level. One that's already rushed for over 1500 yards, and features a plethora of athletes who can take it the distance from anywhere on the field.

The Huskies are also trying to build depth, a tough task when the program is still forced to start talented underclassmen in all three levels of defense.

What depth they have will also be tested by the UO's hurry-up offense, which makes good teams look silly, often snapping the ball while defenders are still running back into position.

Most importantly, the Ducks will test the UW's toughness. A raucous crowd, an experienced head coach, and do-everything tight end Colt Lyerla will test the Huskies mettle throughout the contest.

The Oregon defense is no slouch either, and even a sterling performance by the defense may not be enough for the Huskies to make a game of it. But if the defense can slow the Ducks' offensive juggernaut, well, then that game against Stanford may not have been a mirage after all.


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