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Originally published November 8, 2009 at 5:25 PM | Page modified November 8, 2009 at 7:31 PM

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Washington coordinator Nick Holt says his Huskies defense is improving

Youthful squad yielding big yards, but keeping team in most games

Seattle Times staff reporter

Latest from the Husky Football & Basketball blogs


Nick Holt was hired amid much fanfare last January, the highest-paid assistant football coach in University of Washington history, lured from USC with a contract that could pay him $2.1 million over three years.

His arrival was celebrated with a live television news conference, Huskies fans immediately mesmerized by his high-energy personality and taking great delight in his seemingly perpetual use of the word "awesome."

But Washington's 24-23 loss at UCLA Saturday was the latest evidence that it's going to take more than just a new coordinator spreading a little USC magic dust on the field to revive the Huskies' defense.

UW gave up 455 yards to UCLA — a season high for the Bruins, a team that came in ranked ninth in the conference in total offense at 305 yards per game.

And it continued a stretch of statistically lax performances since the high-water mark of the season, the Week 3 win over USC. In that game, the Huskies held a USC team playing with a QB that is now No. 3 on its depth chart to 360 yards.

But in the six games since then, UW has allowed 458.3 yards per game, or 7 yards per game more than the 451.8 of a year ago that was the most in school history.

Football games, though, are about more than just yards gained, and Holt pointed proudly to the five turnovers the Huskies forced against UCLA as evidence that things are better than they may appear.

Asked after the game if he feels the UW defense is getting better, he said, "Yes, I do. It might not show it sometimes, but I thought there were some really good things today. Some really good things against Oregon for most of the game. And Arizona State, we played really good, though we gave up a couple of big plays. But we are getting better."

Holt said the defense did its most important job Saturday — keeping the team in the game until the end.

In fact, UW forced a UCLA punt to get the ball back at its own 10 with 4:21 left. The Huskies then drove to the UCLA 46 before a Jake Locker pass was intercepted with 54 seconds remaining to seal the win for the Bruins.

It was a devastating loss for the Huskies as it dropped them to 3-6, leaving them needing to sweep the last three games to get to the minimum 6-6 record needed for a bowl game. Those three games begin in tough fashion Saturday in Corvallis against an Oregon State team hitting its typical November stride.

The Huskies have lost three in a row, but mostly blamed themselves for this loss — mainly for not taking full advantage of UCLA's five turnovers. UW got just 13 points off those miscues.

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But given that UCLA had to play the second half with a backup quarterback after starter Kevin Prince was lost to a concussion — and had scored a Pac-10-low 14 touchdowns in its eight previous games — the defense was also hard to ignore.

"If you watch us, we are always a step away from [getting to the QB] here and here and here," Holt said. "And that comes with we need to keep on getting players."

If there's a "silver lining" — as head coach Steve Sarkisian said he hoped could be found in all of the team's recent close losses — it's the youth of the defense. Like the offense, almost everyone could be back next season. Other than end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and middle linebacker Donald Butler, every position has featured a starter for at least one game this year that will return next season. UW had four freshmen, three true freshmen, in its starting defense Saturday.

And despite the yards allowed over the last six games, UW had a chance to win five of those games, losing to Notre Dame in overtime and Arizona State and UCLA in the final minute.

"There are three games right there that could go either way that really kind of makes your season, and we just didn't get those games," Holt said. "And here we are 3-6 and battling for the last three games of the year to have a good season. So I think we are still learning. There's a lot of transition still."

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

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