Bend, but Don’t Break – Nick Holt’s Defense Saves the Day?


As we go deeper into the third year of the Nick Holt defensive regime, the Washington Huskies continue to show that “Bend, but Don’t Break” attitude we’ve learned to expect from the previous two years. It seems like game after game, the Huskies secondary gives up massive numbers of yards from opposing quarterbacks, allowing them to go over 300 yards, have completion percentages in the 60’s or above, rediculously high 3rd down conversion rates, and for many of them career days on offense.

And yet, it does seem like the Huskies generally find a way to hold them back from making those critical scores when they get to the red zone. While the Huskies may be giving up 30+ points per game, they force enough field goals and turnovers with their backs against the end zone to allow the offense a chance to out-score the competition. But, the key questions are “what do the numbers show”?

Anecdotally, one might think that all of UW’s wins since Sark and Holt took over are close final-minute affairs, while all of their losses are blowouts. Just think back to some of the games last year and you can quickly count the Cal game last year being won in the final minute, double OT against Oregon State, a one-point win over USC, and that final minute hold against the Cougs in the Apple Cup. Yet, they were obliterated by Nebraska, Stanford, Arizona, and Oregon.

So, what’s the truth here? Is Sark’s 14-13 record as coach of the Huskies actually something of a fluke? Let’s look at the numbers;

* Ty Willingham’s 2008 0-12 team for comparison

First, how many points are being scored and scored against?

 Ave Pts forAve Pts Against
2011 so far35.029.7

How are opposing quarterbacks doing against UW’s secondary?


How is the red zone defense?

 TD %FG %No Points

How close are the games?

 Ave Margin VictoryAverage Margin Defeat

The numbers to me do not seem as bad as they might appear anecdotally. But, clearly UW is losing games worse than they are winning them, opposing QB’s are indeed throwing more than 60% of their passes for completions, and UW’s defense is giving up too many points. The red zone defense is not quite as stout as some of us might believe. Perhaps we are just remembering the big plays like the “immaculate interception” by Mason Foster or Desmond Trufant’s interception against Eastern.

To me, it seems like when the games are blowouts, the team is more likely to give up big numbers. But, when the game remains close, they are more likely to make the plays necessary late to allow the team a chance to prevail. Perhaps that is a no-duh statement. But, maybe there is something mental there as well in terms of their effort and focus late in games. In fact, other than in 2009, when they lost that road game against Notre Dame in overtime and when Arizona State threw up that bomb with seconds left for the win, I don’t see many close games UW has lost since Steve Sarkisian came aboard.

So, the question is; Is Steve Sarkisian a great end-of-game coach? Or, has UW simply been really lucky to get the key stops and/or offensive plays when they have needed them in close games? I’d say it is still to early in the Sark regime to pass judgements. But, I’ll say this for sure; if UW wants to return to elite status in the Pac-12, where they are challenging for Rose Bowl berths, they have got to stop allowing opponents from scoring 30 points per game and throwing over 60% of their passes for completions.