Sep 26, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies linebacker Cory Littleton (42) gets to California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff (16) for a sack in the fourth quarter at Husky Stadium. The Bears won 30-24. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Strength will meet strength as the USC football offense takes on a stout Washington defense at the LA Coliseum Thursday night.
Despite losing four starters to the NFL, the Husky defense has been the bright spot for a 2-2 squad which is still in the process of developing under second-year head coach Chris Petersen.
New look defense
Of those four lost starters, three were selected in the first round — Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters and Shaq Thompson went 12th, 18th and 25th respectively — while the fourth, Hau’oli Kikaha was taken in the second round. That is a wealth of talent no longer available to the Huskies.
It goes beyond that. Washington lost more than just those key players. Defensive line starters Andrew and Evan Hudson and starting linebacker John Timu also graduated, while receiver and cornerback stand-in John Ross went down with a knee injury during the offseason.
All told, the Huskies have had to rebuild a large chunk of their starting line up on defense, including every starter on the defensive line and two of three in the linebacker corps. The front seven had a combined 17 starts between them before the start of the 2014 season.
The bonus for Washington in replacing all those starters is that the players stepping into the starting line up were not without experience.
Defensive tackle Taniela Tupou and Buck linebacker Travis Feeney had played in 32 and 39 games prior to this season respectively, while fellow defensive line starters Joe Mathis and Elijah Qualls were part of the rotation for Washington last year. Feeney had been a starter at linebacker before being moved to cover Kikaha’s departure.
As a result, the Husky defense has not missed a step. Through four games, Washington is the top-ranked defense in the conference when it comes to rushing, scoring and total defense.
In a game which featured five turnovers by the Husky offense, the defense limited Cal to just 13 points off of takeaways and 30 points overall.
Battle up front
Looking deeper into Washington’s stellar rush defense, the Huskies have allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season with an average of 2.61 yards per carry allowed and just over 100 yards per game allowed.
With that in mind, the Trojans could find it difficult to get the ground game going just as they did against ASU before the bye week.
The trouble is that the Huskies have not exactly been vulnerable to the pass either this season. Jared Goff was held to his lowest passer rating of the year when he faced Washington and in general the Cal offense struggled to get off the ground in Seattle.
Part of that trouble was thanks to the performance of the Husky defensive front, which forced five sacks against the Bears. Qualls logged his first two of the season, while Cory Littleton, Travis Feeney and Jaylen Johnson added to the total.
Budda’s ankle in question
The big question for Washington entering Thursday’s contest is whether or not Bednarik, Nagurski and Thorpe Award watch lister Budda Baker will be good to go after spraining his ankle against Utah State.
The All-Pac-12 honorable mention sat out the game against Cal and is questionable for this week as well.
Though Washington’s defensive backs are their most experienced, Baker’s presence would go a long way towards giving the Husky defense a chance against one of the top offenses in the Pac-12.
At the very least, Washington does boast some talent at defensive back beyond Baker.
Sophomore cornerback Sidney Jones has been excellent so far this season after starting 12 games as freshman in 2014. He is second in the Pac-12 with four pass breaks ups so far and has forced three fumbles, including one he returned for 70 yards versus Cal.
On the other side Kevin King, who started at safety for the Huskies last season but moved to cornerback for 2015, had an interception in each of the first three games.
What the stats say
[table id=36 /]
* Denotes statistics from 2014
- Something’s gotta give when it comes to the red zone efficiency of the Trojan offense versus the Washington defense. This season, USC has converted touchdowns 75% of the times they have entered the red zone. Washington, on the other hand, has limited opponents to field goals or nothing 65% of the time.
- The Huskies are ranked 18th in the S&P+ defensive ratings, which quantify a team’s ability to stop offensive efficiency, explosiveness, field position and finishing with an adjustment for strength of opposition. That is the highest ranking of any Pac-12 team.
Projected starting lineups: USC football vs. Washington
Washington Defense[table id=42 /]
USC Offense[table id=41 /]
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