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Originally published September 28, 2012 at 1:35 PM | Page modified September 28, 2012 at 9:39 PM

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Victory over Stanford is proof of Huskies' defensive improvement

New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was happy with his team's effort in Huskies' victory over Stanford; now he wants that performance to be the new normal.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday, Oct. 6

UW @ Oregon, 7:30 p.m.

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After Washington's 17-13 win over Stanford on Thursday night, Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor stood in a hallway against a wall at CenturyLink Field, hemmed in by media.

It was a fitting end to the night for Taylor, who had spent the game rarely finding room to run against Washington's defense, which didn't allow the Cardinal to score an offensive touchdown — a first for Stanford since the 2007 season.

It was a surprising turnaround from the previous season, when Stanford scored seven offensive touchdowns, five on the ground, en route to a 65-21 win.

"They were running around a lot," said Taylor, when asked to compare the 2011 UW defense with the one he had just faced. "They adjusted. Last year, they didn't really adjust too much. But this time they flew around out there, played great."

In just one of many numbers that illustrated the turnabout, when the Cardinal beat UW in 2011 it averaged 10 yards per carry (446 yards on 44 attempts). Thursday night, Stanford's longest run was 7 yards, and it gained just 65 yards on 23 carries.

"We stood our ground there all the way to the end," UW coach Steve Sarkisian said.

And getting much of the credit afterward was first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who just as quickly deflected it back on the players.

"They played extremely hard," Wilcox said. "Played with great technique. They knew what they were looking at, and they brought it with every snap."

That, the UW players did.

Still, it was hard to ignore the myriad different looks devised by Wilcox the Huskies threw at Stanford.

Knowing the Cardinal's penchant for power running, the Huskies often went with a "jumbo" package, featuring some of their bigger players up the middle. Semisi Tokolahi, a 340-pound senior, started at one tackle spot opposite 315-pound Danny Shelton. And the team's biggest linebacker, 242-pound Thomas Tutogi, started alongside regular middle linebacker John Timu.

"When they got big people in we were going to get bigger people in, and that's what we did the whole game," Wilcox said.

The plan was to limit Stanford's first-down gains and force quarterback Josh Nunes — making his first career road start — to make plays on second- and third-and longs. It generally worked as the Cardinal finished with just 38 yards rushing on 11 first-down carries and was 2-of-8 passing for 17 yards and a sack on first-down passes.

"Make them try and beat you throwing the ball outside, that's what we tried to do," Wilcox said.

Stanford couldn't do it as UW cornerback Desmond Trufant led a stellar pass defense that was aided by off-target throws by Nunes and a few timely drops by Cardinal receivers.

"We know what to expect before it comes," Trufant said. "I give all the credit to the coaches."

That's not something that was said often by anyone a year ago when the Huskies gave up a school-record 467 points. After the season, three UW defensive coaches were fired, including coordinator Nick Holt, and the entire defensive coaching staff revamped. Wilcox, a former defensive back at Oregon, was hired away from Tennessee to replace Holt.

Washington's first three games had given indications of improvement under the new staff. But the Stanford result hammered the point home that this is a different defense.

"It gives us a lot of confidence just to be able to stop a team like this," said Tutogi, who didn't need reminding that Stanford had beaten UW a combined 140-35 the past three seasons. "They are big-time known for their run, outside and inside, so being able to stop them was real big for us as a group."

Washington kept the Cardinal off-balance with a number of personnel groups, utilizing what coaches have said is an increased versatility among defensive players. Sometimes, linebackers lined up on the line then dropped off. Defensive backs blitzed at times, faked at others.

The Huskies also rarely missed tackles. Last year, a key play in the Stanford game came when Taylor took a simple inside handoff and ran 70 yards for a touchdown. Thursday night, the Cardinal never seemed able to escape UW's grasp.

Asked the difference, Trufant said: "I think nobody is afraid to miss. If you miss a tackle there are 10 other guys hopefully coming to make up for that miss, so we've just got each other's back out there. We are playing hard, playing aggressive, and everybody's confidence level is sky high right now."

Wilcox, mindful that a lot of tough tasks remain — such as a game at No. 2-ranked Oregon next week — said the goal is for UW's defense not to be a one-hit wonder.

"Hopefully, it's not surprising," he said. "We need to enjoy the win and it's great for our school and our fans — it's awesome. But we need to expect to play well like that."

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

A new year
Comparing the Huskies' victory over Stanford on Thursday night to their previous three games against the Cardinal, which were losses by a combined score of 140-35
2009-2011 Thursday
Points allowed 46.7 13
Yards allowed 496.3 235
Rushing yards allowed 348.3 65
Average per rush 7.4 2.3

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