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Setting a metric for stopping the run
Richard Linde, 17 February 2009

The Washington football program flatlined last season, posting a 0-12 mark. The firing of Coach Tyrone Willingham turns the UW corpse over to USC’s former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who will attempt to convert it into a zombie that at the least can stand up, shuffle its feet and bark for Sark.

Sarkisian’s enthusiasm and youth has invigorated the Washington fan base, many of whom are hoping for the same turnaround that Jeff Tedford made at Cal in 2002. Tedford took over a team from Tom Holmoe that finished 1-10 in 2001 and produced a 7-5 team in 2002. Since then Tedford has had 6 consecutive winning seasons.

Can Sarkisian work the same miracle at Washington?

Most likely he won’t be able to and here’s why:

Tedford took over a more experienced team (13 senior starters) that had an easier OOC schedule than Washington will have this year. He played an eight-game conference schedule that omitted Oregon. The Huskies play OOC opponents LSU and Notre Dame and play a round-robin conference schedule of 9 games.

Of the the 17 statistical categories posted on the NCAA website, Washington finished 100th or higher in 16 of them last season, this out of the 119 FBS teams.

The statistics bad-mouth a Tedford miracle for the Dawgs and are the reason we’ve chosen a five-year return to respectability for Sarkisian.

Instead of going with the Cal resurrection, how about going with Mike Stoops' record of achievement at Arizona as a more reasonable benchmark for tracking Sarkisian’s progress at Washington?

Stoops took over a moribund program in 2004 and transformed it into a winner in five years' time. Likewise Sark is taking over a dying program at UW, one that is on the verge of collapse. The records of the two teams in the year prior to both coaches' takeover seasons are prophetically alike. See “More on the Arizona benchmark.”

In order to track Stoops’ benchmark, Sark must win 3 games in 2009. If you look at Washington’s schedule, that seems reasonable enough. Posting a 4th win would be outstanding, in my opinion.

The most important number in Stoops’ first year at Arizona was improving its run defense. Stoops took over a team that had given up 180.8 rushing yards per game in 2003 and lowered the figure to 123.9 rushing yards per game in 2004, a 31% improvement.

Last season, the Dawgs gave up an average of 240.58 yards per game on the ground, finishing 117th in the nation in rushing defense.  

The porous run defense was highlighted by the game against Cal, a game that was lost from the beginning. Cal’s Jahvid Best rushed for a school record 311 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Bears to a 48-7 victory over the Huskies. After UW’s perfunctory three-and-out to start the game, Best tore off a 60-yard touchdown run, finding a huge hole on the Bears’ second play from scrimmage to burst through.

In its 13 games last season, Washington gave up 11 runs of 35 yards or more, Jahvid Best’s 87-yard run in the third quarter being the longest.

Of the 18 players signed to letters of intent by the Huskies this year, 13 of them are on the defensive side of the ball. Which makes me think the new coaching staff is intent on improving the Huskies’ defense.

Tracking  Stoops’ benchmark means a reduction in yards given up on the ground from last year’s 240.58 yards to 166 yards in 2009 (i.e., 240.58 – (240.58*.31) = 166 yards).

This number should set Coach Sark all a-twitter.;-) See his twitter page. (Link).

Okay, that number is too ambitious. In 2008, Arizona's first winning season in ten years, the Wildcats gave up and average of 131.8 yards per game. See Table 3.

From 1999 to 2003 (non-losing years), Washington gave up an average of 138.5 yards on the ground per game. (See Table 2). This is close to the Wildcats' yield last season. The difference between that number (138.5) and last year's number is 102.8 yards per game, which computes to 20 yards per game in improvement over a five-year period.

Does Washington have the stalwarts returning on the defensive line necessary to meet this metric, say a yield of 220 yards per game next year? Of course, total defense needs improving as well.

There should be some improvement on defensive line and in the linebacker corps -- that is, with the front seven. Washington’s top 5 tacklers return. In addition, E. J. Savannah, who sat out last season, returns; he led Washington in tackles in the 2007 season, posting 111. See Table 1.

Also, Washington has six defensive linemen who were rated four stars coming out of high school by scout.com. Add the esprit de corps the incoming Polys bring to the team, and there is potential for improvement on the DL, the team as a whole and recruiting. Reference my article, "The Polys are back on the defensive line."

Reference Ted Miller's top defensive tackles returning in the Pac-10. (Link). He makes reference to incoming Juco defensive tackle Johnny Tivao, who is expected to bolster the Huskies' front four.

But then again, remember this is a 0-12 team going into this upcoming season, so don’t expect a vast improvement in stopping the run.

This tempered optimism is also borne out by the Huskies’ rush-defense statistics over the last 10 years. See Table 2 below.

Washington has a 10-year average of 7th best in the Pac-10 in stopping the run, while averaging a yield of 158.38 yards per game.

Table 1. Top UW tacklers returning from last year

Name Year Position Tackles
E. J. Savannah* SR LB 111*
Mason Foster JR LB 105
Nate Williams JR S 76
Trenton Tuiasosopo SR LB 71
Donald Butler SR LB 69
Daniel Te'o-Nesheim SR DE 65
Quinton Richardson SO CB 32
Cameron Elisira JR DT 24
Johri Fogerson SO S 23
Alameda Ta'amu SO DT 21
Everrette Thompson SO DE 18
Joshua Gage SR LB 17
Darion Jones SR DE 17
Victor Aiyewa JR SS 17

* Savannah sat out last year; his stats are from 2007.

Table 2. Washington's rushing defense numbers over the last 10 years.

Year

Pac-10

Yards

2008

10th

240.6

2007

10th

184.5

2006

8th

139.2

2005

4th

143.4

2004

9th

183.6

2003

9th

151.6

2002

4th

96.1

2001

10th

162.6

2000

6th

141.5

1999

4th

140.7

Table 3. Arizona's rushing defense statistics

Year Yards
2003 180.8
2004 123.9
2005 183.9
2006 119.67
2007 138.0
2008 131.9


Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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