When the Going Gets Tough


Washington should be 3 – 0.  Washington knows what it could be.  It’s been there in the past.  Price and company have put up enough points on the board to take care of their end.  Washington’s defense, however, is having difficulty getting untracked.

What happened defensively between Nebraska 2010, the Holiday Bowl and Nebraska 2011?  What changed?

Nothing that is immediately apparent – implying the non-apparent.  Attitude.

In 2010 and 2011, Nebraska had it.  In the Holiday Bowl, Nebraska didn’t, and Washington had enough to capitalize on Nebraska not entirely showing up.

New guys on defense, take note.  You don’t have to be the fastest or strongest or biggest – although those things help – but you must have a certain mindset that was at the heart of Husky football defenses for decades.  Coach Steve Sarkisian knows about it; he experienced it first hand when BYU played Washington, and that attitude was much of the motivation for Sarkisian wanting the Washington job.

It began with the Jim Owens’ teams.  McKeta, Fleming, Allen, Kinnune, Jackson, McKasson.  Mcketa.

Above the Husky locker room door in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a sign that read, “Without mental toughness, physical toughness is a mockery.”  The early Owens teams usually played head-to-head with good teams through three quarters, and dominated in the late fourth quarter like Edwin Moses pulling away in the 400 meter hurdles, their tenacity and conditioning (the latter the result of practice intensity) overwhelming worthy opposition.  The Huskies’ fourth quarter became a verb: “They ‘fourth quartered’ ‘em.”

The early 1990s defenses had the same attitude and were also extraordinarily tenacious.  After a phone interview by KJR’s Softy Mahler, former Washington linebacker Dave Hoffman wrote the following message on Facebook.

"After we got off the phone I thought about our old D some more…..nobody could be blocked 1 on 1. That was the f’ing key. We were nasty and could not be blocked. When the [2011] UW backers start getting split second reads and hurting the dude that is supposed to block them before he can get position on them, we will have turned the corner."

Hoffmann wasn’t one of the fastest linebackers on the Husky team, much less the conference or the country.  In the photo below, he is probably among the least athletic in the line-up…but, no doubt, pound-for-pound, the toughest.  And Hoffmann played smart.

Hoffmann’s statements reflect the traditional Husky defensive mindset, a combination of pride, toughness and team unity generating high performance and winning margins.

Husky football has been about on-field tenacity, and the heart of Husky football has traditionally been a formidable defense.  Hoffmann’s Facebook message went on to say:

"I could not see the game [Eastern Washington] today, but watch to see if guys allow themselves to be blocked by one guy. To us [the National Championship team], it was an f’ing embarassment to ever be blocked by 1 guy. Also watch to see if the ‘backers are destroying/hurting the guy that is trying to block them and not dancing around or trying to slip him…..watch and tell me what you see. The tide will change when you see guys that 1 guy can never handle, lots of times even 2."

Beginning with the Owens era, Washington football has involved an inherent attitude of malevolence, nastiness, that subconsciously manifests itself every second of every play.  In an earlier interview, Hoffmann said, “I’ve said before that nastiness is something that you can’t teach but have to recruit. That’s definitely something that [former teammates] Jaime Fields, James Clifford and Emtman and all those guys on [the ‘91] defense had.  It also creates a special bond when you see that in guys and you appreciate it.  It’s an unspoken thing.”

Does the present husky defense have that attitude?

Based on what they’ve done thus far, no.

Nebraska pinned 51 points on Washington.  As one fan said after the game, “No one, not Nebraska, not the New England Patriots, should ever score 51 points against Washington.”  Traditionally, Husky defenses have kept the opponent’s score low; sometimes the other team doesn’t score at all.  Shutouts.  That has been the historic goal of Washington defenses.  51 points?  In three games, Washington’s defense hasn’t started playing Husky football.

What is the problem?  The talent is there.  The defensive schemes seem fine.  The coaches are competent.  What’s missing?

"“To us, it was an f’ing embarassment to ever be blocked by 1 guy.”"

It wasn’t that the past Huskies were so much bigger, faster or stronger; they weren’t.  It was that Husky defensive mindset.  Sarkisian and former Husky coach Rick Nueheisel, both former opposing quarterbacks during their playing years, have independently remarked how intimidating it was to play the Huskies, especially in Husky Stadium.

The last Husky who obviously had that mindset was a Kingco walk-on who at the 2003 post-season banquet received three awards: the Most Outstanding Special Teams Player award, the Big Hit award, and the Most Inspirational award.  That was 5’ 10” 190 lb. (the same size as McKeta) Owen Biddle on a team that included Khalif Barnes, Greg Carothers, Marquis Cooper, Stanley Daniels, Tank Johnson, Cody Pickett and Reggie Williams.  In the footsteps of Dave Hoffman, Biddle, tough and smart although small, played Husky football; with everything he had he put the hurt on people.

To win, the Washington defense has to dominate, and to dominate, individual defenders have to play tough and smart.  The present Washington defenders play hard but they don’t have that domination mindset yet and, consequently, at times they’re the ones dominated.

When will that stop?

"“The tide will change when you see guys that 1 guy can never handle, lots of times even 2.”"

It starts with the defensive line.  Each player has to have the attitude of Owen Biddle or Dave Hoffmann or Don McKeta.  Some players at times seem there.  But for the defense to make a big turnaround, all the D-line guys have to get there and stay there.  The defensive line is the great insurance policy that, if dominating and disruptive, can make everyone else on defense look better than they are.  In short, like the defensive lines in the early 1960s and 1990s, the 2011 defensive line has to start making it personal.

Inexperience obviously has an impact because it tends to slow down new people in thinking situations that to Hoffman should be “split second reads.”  John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono should start doing what comes naturally as soon as they can stop thinking about it.

In summary, the solution for what’s missing is as simple as it is elusive.  As Hoffmann stated, coaches can’t coach nasty, they must recruit it.  But Husky defensive players Alameda Ta’amu, Princeton Fuimaono, John Timu, Everrette Thompson, Hau’oli Jamora, et al at times seem to have it.  It just has to be there all the time.  By definition, the mindset that has been the hallmark of great Husky defenses does not come and go.

When will it come and stay is hard to say.  But this defense, including the defensive line, has potential, and should it get Husky football, with that “special bond” Hoffmann mentioned, Softy Mahler and everyone else may finally be able to put “Jaime Fields, James Clifford and Emtman and all those guys” firmly in the past.