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Originally published October 12, 2009 at 5:21 PM | Page modified October 12, 2009 at 8:46 PM

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Huskies' red-zone defense gave them a chance to pull off miracle

Arizona moved the ball inside UW's 12-yard line eight times, but could score just three touchdowns.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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There were times Saturday when the Washington Huskies gave up yards like Bobby Ayala used to surrender leads.

Arizona gained 461 yards, had 26 first downs and held the ball for almost 40 minutes.

Many on Montlake continued to revel in Mason Foster's otherwordly interception that finally steered the game Washington's way. But UW coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday the 36-33 victory never would have been possible had the Huskies defense not proven tight-fisted where it mattered most — in the red zone, or inside their 20-yard-line.

"When you look at the game, I really thought the game really hung in the balance in the red zone," Sarkisian said.

Arizona drove inside UW's 12-yard line eight times but was held out of the end zone on all but three possessions, forced to kick four field goals and another time being stopped on downs. Despite UW allowing 33 points, that red-zone stoutness kept the game close enough for UW to be in position to steal it at the end.

The red-zone defensive success continued a seasonlong trend that has seen the Huskies get miserly the closer opponents get to the end zone. The week before, Notre Dame had seven possessions inside UW's 22 and came away with just two touchdowns.

The Huskies have allowed opponents 30 drives inside the red zone this year — tied for the fourth-most in the nation — but have given up just 11 touchdowns. Opponents have attempted 14 field goals, making them all. The ratio of touchdowns per score inside the red zone (11 of 25, 44 percent) is tied for sixth-stingiest in the nation.

It all seems to give validity to a UW defensive strategy that has all the appearances of "bend but don't break" — UW playing to prevent big plays in the middle of the field, then getting more aggressive near the goal line — even if Huskies coaches resist that label. The Huskies played an especially conservative defensive game against Arizona due in part to having to start two new safeties after injuries sidelined Justin Glenn and Nate Williams.

One explanation for the red-zone success the past two weeks is that Arizona and Notre Dame mostly passed their way down the field, and a generally accepted theory is that it's harder to pass into the end zone once the field gets shorter near the goal line than to run it in. Stanford, which mostly ran the ball against UW, scored TDs on three of five red-zone possessions against UW (not counting a final possession when time ran out).

Sarkisian agreed that passing teams can have more difficulty scoring in the red zone. "I think it's a big deal because the concern of the deep ball isn't there," he said. "You're able to sit on routes and route recognition."

But Sarkisian said it's also about how his team has played when teams get close to the end zone.

"I think it comes down to execution," Sarkisian said. "In the red zone, they are really locked into the calls we're making. For us, it's something to grow on. We need to transition that out to the middle of the field now."

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Defensive tackle Cameron Elisara agreed that "when we get in the red zone, I notice we have more energy. It's a mindset that they break a big play downfield, get to our 25, when that happens, you really lock in mentally, at least for me, and I think for the rest of our defense, we really lock up tight and expect that they are not going to get seven points on us."

Saturday, that included stopping an Arizona quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, perpetuating another trend — UW opponents are just 1 for 5 this year on fourth down, the worst percentage in the Pac-10.

"I think our guys are starting to grow into this system and understand their responsibilities and when it's their opportunity to be really aggressive, to make those plays, and also when it's important to do your job and eliminate the big plays," Sarkisian said. "We're trying to find that fine line in there of being aggressive but yet ultimately be somewhat conservative in the back end so we don't give up the big plays."

Notes

• The Oct. 24 game against Oregon was selected for a regional telecast by ABC. It will kick off at 12:30 p.m.

• Foster was the Pac-10 defensive player of the week. Along with the game-winning interception he also had a game-high 11 tackles.

• Sarkisian said Williams and WR D'Andre Goodwin, who each missed the Arizona game with a concussion, and RB Johri Fogerson (flu) are expected to return this week.

• Locker said his back is fine, though he did hurt it a little when he landed on it. He said he got extra padding to protect his back.

• Sarkisian said RB Chris Polk, who left the game briefly with a bruised shoulder, is better than he thought he might be after the game and should be fine this week. Sarkisian said Polk will continue to return kicks.

• UW's opponents this year have a combined record of 22-5 (excluding games against the Huskies). Only Virginia Tech and Florida State have better opponents' records.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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