Apparently Josh Shirley wasn’t enjoying the arc of his Husky career over the past year or so. He went in to the 2012 season coming off what looked to be a breakout year. 8.5 sacks in ’11, including three in the Alamo Bowl loss and 6.5 in the last four games of the season. His pass-rushing appeared to be one of the lone bright spots in the final Holt-led defense.
With new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox remaking the defense, many were high on Shirley as the team’s primary quarterback hunter. Unfortunately, eight games into the season Shirley had only managed to record two sacks. The buzz surrounding the 6’3 232-pound rush end mostly died down, even after he finished ’12 almost as strong as he finished the season before: 4.5 sacks in the final five contents.
Over the course of the long offseason national writers continued to list Shirley as one of the best pro prospects on the team. It seemed less a reflection of Shirley’s likely impact and more an example of national-types being behind the local curve. A 232-pound pass-rusher with sack totals of 8.5 and 6.5 is valuable, but not groundbreaking. That point was driven home by the first depth chart released during fall camp, which featured Cory Littleton squarely above Shirley at rush end. Following the season-opener that saw Washington record zero sacks, if you had asked me about the kind of year I saw Shirley having, I would have said maybe five or six sacks while fighting for reps behind/alongside the sophomore Littleton.
On Saturday, Shirley changed that equation by sacking Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase three times, his first trio of quarterback sacks since the Alamo Bowl. The final sack came late in the game, more of a finishing blow than a key play, but the other two came in prime pass-rushing opportunities. Even more importantly, Shirley didn’t just slip by an offensive lineman three times for a clean sack. He played with monstrous drive throughout the entire contest, pressuring Scheelhaase throughout the night. The sacks were simply the statistical fruits of his game-changing effort.
With that in mind, it’s still important to temper expectations for Shirley going forward. As previously mentioned, he followed up his last three sack effort with the most lackluster stretch of his career. As is so often the case with big games, conclusions can’t truly be drawn until the sample size is larger, especially with the three sacks following zero sacks against Boise State (for the whole team). The lack of QB pressure against the Broncos may have been a result of game-planning to keep Southwick from scrambling out to the perimeter, where he hurt the Huskies in the Vegas Bowl, but it still makes Shirley’s explosion in production seem a little more fluky.
Idaho State’s offensive line should be inferior talent-wise to Shirley and the rest of the Washington defense. If he shows off the same high-motor attack this Saturday, he should dominate and rack up numbers. Counting exclusively sacks game to game can be a bit misleading, as circumstances outside the pass-rusher’s control can influence those numbers. But as long as he continues to pressure and hit the QB, he’d be doing his job and building a pattern of high-level play.
The real test will be the open of the conference slate against Arizona a week from this Saturday for the exact same reason it is the real test for Austin Seferian-Jenkins and for the whole team: it will be a hugely important game against a solid opponent. If Shirley can string together three straight productive games (Illinois, Idaho State, Arizona), it’ll be time to start discussing the possibility of a corner turned for the junior pass-rusher.
However, as a final caveat: Shirley has struggled to come through against big-time opponents. His hot streaks have often coincided with a soft stretch in the schedule. In fact, he has only ever recorded a sack against a ranked opponent once against a loss to #6 USC in 2011. Following Arizona the Huskies will play Stanford and Oregon. If Shirley continues to make an impact against those teams, the sample size will be approaching half a season and the Husky defense will likely have found its premier pass-rusher.