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Originally published September 25, 2011 at 9:21 PM | Page modified September 26, 2011 at 12:07 PM

Maligned Washington defense stiffens when it needs to

The Huskies are on pace to allow more yards than they have in any season, even the 0-12 debacle of 2008.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ Utah, 4 p.m., ROOT

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Statistics, it has often been said, are for losers.

Consider the first four games for the 2011 Washington Huskies as the latest exhibit of the validity of that statement.

Through what is now one-third of the regular season, the Huskies are giving up 67 more yards per game than they are gaining (453.2 to 386.2), have allowed 19 more first downs (96 to 77), have punted five more times and allowed three more sacks.

The Huskies, in fact, are on pace to allow more yards than they have in any season, even the 0-12 debacle of 2008, the previous low-water mark when UW gave up 451.8 yards per game.

Yet here the Huskies are 3-1 heading into a game Saturday at Utah.

And the reason for that success was explained simply enough by defensive coordinator Nick Holt after Saturday's 31-23 win over California.

"We stopped them when we needed to," he said.

That the Huskies did, twice halting Cal drives in UW territory on fourth down in the fourth quarter, including keeping the Bears out of the end zone after they reached the Huskies' 2-yard line with 42 seconds to play.

For the game, Cal scored touchdowns on just one of five trips inside UW's 20-yard line, the Huskies defense stiffening when it mattered most.

On the final goal-line stand, UW held Cal to no yards rushing on two carries, and forced incompletes on two pass attempts.

And what was as heartening a sight as any for the Huskies was the number of younger players involved in some of the key downs.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Jamaal Kearse saw the first significant action of his career after an injury to starter John Timu, and provided solid coverage on Cal tight end Anthony Miller on the first-down play of the goal-line stand.

Kearse then teamed with fellow redshirt freshman defensive end Andrew Hudson — in the game due to an injury to Hau'oli Jamora — for the tackle to stop Isi Sofele a yard short of the goal line on second down.

Redshirt freshman defensive end Josh Shirley also saw the most action of his career helping fill in for Jamora, and had a sack and a forced fumble that helped stall Cal's second-to-last drive.

"There were a lot of guys out there that were not (starters)," Holt said. "And they did a good job. There were a lot of mistakes out there, but they are correctable, and we will get it corrected. But the effort was phenomenal and the defense has a lot of character."

Also seeing his most significant playing time of the season was sophomore linebacker Garret Gilliland, who finished with four tackles, splitting time with Princeton Fuimaono as the Huskies continued to search for the right combinations on defense.

"We have more depth than last year," Gilliland said. "Last year we had really good players, but if they got hurt then the fall off was great. But this year we are a little more mature and we've got more guys, so depth is not so much of an issue. ... It's not nerve-wracking when a new guy comes in because we know he is going to play and do his job."

Coach Steve Sarkisian said a lot of the youngsters are simply getting more comfortable with what they are being asked to do, thereby allowing the coaches the confidence to play them more.

"It just comes with playing ball," he said. "You've got to get on the field and play football ... get used to playing football. ... A lot of our younger guys, they are just starting to come. But again, we've got a lot of work to do. That's just game number four and we've got a long way to go."

Gilliland said he thinks the stops at the end — the Bears scored just three points in the second half, the fewest UW has allowed in any half this season — may serve as a defining moment for the defense.

"What better way to end a game, just kind of making a statement there on defense and showing us that we are not soft and that we can make big plays, too," he said.

Notes

• Timu, who was taken off the field via ambulance to Harborview Medical Center as a precautionary measure with a neck injury, was released on Saturday night, the school saying that "all is good."

• QB Keith Price is now ninth nationally in passing efficiency with a 176.58 rating. He has 14 touchdowns in four games, one shy of UW's season top 10 list. The UW record is 28 by Cody Pickett in 2002.

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

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