The Washington defense lines up behind the nation’s second-leading tackler at inside linebacker, one of the college game’s better free safeties and a block of granite among its down linemen.
Yet even with an honors candidate on each row, this Huskies stop unit struggles mightily to get to the quarterback and has even more trouble creating turnovers.
Through eight games, 15th-ranked UW (6-2 overall, 4-1 Pac-12) counts just 10 sacks and an even more ridiculous three interceptions—numbers way below the Chris Petersen-era averages of 40 quarterback drops and 15 pass thefts per season.
It’s not a bad defense, it’s just far more cautious and conservative than opportunistic. It doesn’t get in anyone’s face but it doesn’t get shredded either.
“It’s been strange this year,” acknowledged the Huskies’ Ben Burr-Kirven, who’s done his part with 13.5 tackles each game, second nationally only to New Mexico State’s Javahn Ferguson at 15 an outing. “There’s been opportunities we’ve missed here and there. Obviously teams haven’t taken as many shots as we’re used to seeing.”
The Huskies are just eight points from being unbeaten, but they’ve had to work harder than they should have to stay on the plus side on the scoreboard. The lack of turnovers has prevented instant field position, forcing the UW to accept punts and churn out significant yards to score touchdowns.
The vaunted secondary of Byron Murphy, Myles Bryant, Jordan Miller, JoJo McIntosh and Rapp has just two interceptions, a team total padded by one more collected by Burr-Kirven against Colorado. Teams haven’t tested the corners that much, though the Buffaloes went after a gimpy Miller right away and beat the senior cornerback bad on a 37-yard touchdown pass on their first drive last Saturday, sitting him down for the rest of the afternoon.
Here’s how unusual the UW interception drought is: In 80 years since the school started recording season defensive stats, the Huskies have finished with single-digit stolen passes just six times.
The all-time low is a mere five interceptions in 1998 for a 6-6 team that helped get defensive-minded head coach Jim Lambright fired. But it was more a play-it-safe mentality even during the coaching crossover as the 2000 Huskies, led by Rick Neuheisel and winners of 11 of 12 games including the Rose Bowl, stole just six passes all season.
The UW record for most interceptions is 30 in 1968, when All-America safety Al Worley pilfered an NCAA record 14 of them. Yet these Huskies proved that pass thefts aren’t always the key to success—they finished 3-5-2.
Fifty years later, Rapp is doing his part at Worley’s old position, leading the UW with four sacks and contributing one of the three interceptions. But he could use some help in the big-play department. His linemen come up uncharacteristically empty-handed.
Up front, the Huskies are built around senior down lineman Greg Grimes, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last year. While handling constant double-teams, he entered the season with six career sacks and has added just one to that total so far. He’s flanked by senior Jaylen Johnson, who has 5.5 career sacks but none this season, and sophomore Levi Onzuwurike, who earned two last year and collected his first one this season against Colorado.
More revealing is what’s happening with the guys coming off the edge. Sophomore defensive end Ryan Bowman registered 5.5 sacks last year but he has none this season, and junior Benning Potoa’e entered the season with three in his career and he’s is still looking for his first one in 2018.
It’s a far cry from 2014, when a take-no-prisoners UW defense piled up 52 sacks for 297 lost yards. Defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha put up 19 sacks, and down lineman Andrew Shelton and Danny Shelton added 12.5 and 9, respectively.
Bowman, whose older brother Shane has one of the team’s 10 sacks but is out with a foot injury, blames shoddy fundamentals for the somewhat sack-less season for the Huskies, at least with the front four.
“We have to be deliberate in our technique and better with our feet,” the younger Bowman said. “We’ve got stuff we need to work on—it’s just a part of finishing. (Against Colorado) I was there on three plays and I’ve got to finish.”
While the interceptions and sacks are nice game-day trophies, the Huskies have shown they can manage without getting lit up for a ton of yards and touchdowns. They’re ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense, permitting just 15.6 points per game, and doing this with good old-fashioned tackling, pass deflections and not much else.
At the same time, the lack of a big-play Washington defense might be the difference between a two-loss season and a perfect record.
“It’s been weird,” Burr-Kirven said.