SEATTLE -- Maligned for much of last year when it was among the worst units in the country, Washington's defense is now the reason for the Huskies' longest regular-season win streak in more than a decade.
Heading into Friday's Apple Cup against rival Washington State, the Huskies' defense has become a stout unit that doesn't give up points very easily.
After getting routed by Arizona last month and giving up 52 points for the second time this season, Washington looked like the same leaky defense from the past.
But the recent surge of four straight wins, potentially an eight-win season and likely a return to the rankings is thanks to the defense.
"It just took us a little time to mature on offense. But the end result is, (the defense) gained confidence by us playing that way," coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Knowing that we were going to lean on them, sometimes that's empowering. They felt that, and they've really responded. The way they've been playing this last month of the season has been tremendous.”
Washington (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) will head to Pullman to face the Cougars (2-9, 0-8) not having allowed more than 17 points in any of its last four games. It hasn't been against the toughest competition, but the improvement of the Huskies' defense under first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been startling.
A year ago, the Huskies gave up nearly 36 points and more than 450 yards per game. This year, they are allowing just 23 points and 350 yards per game.
The biggest improvement is with Washington's pass defense, which ranks ninth in the country and second in the Pac-12 and is giving up just 174 yards per game. While cornerback Desmond Trufant has remained the steady leader of the secondary, the emergence of Marcus Peters as the cornerback opposite Trufant and the athleticism of freshmen Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson have allowed the Huskies to stay in their base defense while continuing to play strong pass defense.
"It's been good to us that way," Sarkisian said. "We still go to some of our nickel stuff which has been good to us as well. ... But all in all, our base defense is something that is pretty well-versed to play against anything.”
That improved pass defense will get possibly its strongest test from Washington State. While the Cougars' pass game has yet to match the vaunted productivity coach Mike Leach had while at Texas Tech, it's still a unique style and Washington has struggled facing unique offenses. The Huskies gave up 52 points each to Arizona and Oregon, which run unconventional spread offenses.
"I think at the end of the day the statistics are just a matter of execution," Wilcox said. "You execute well, the statistics are going to be better.”
The Huskies will need to prepare for two quarterbacks this week, as Leach said he's not yet ready to make a decision about whether Jeff Tuel or Connor Halliday will get the nod.
"They both have done some good things. They both have a level of inconsistency. Some of it has been musical quarterbacks and some of it has been my fault," Leach said. "But by the same token we try to get on the guy that is hot and that has been tough to identify.”
Tuel and Halliday played in a 46-7 loss to Arizona State last Saturday, the Cougars' eighth straight defeat.
Tuel completed 8 of 16 passes for 63 yards, while Halliday was 13 of 33 for 173 yards. Both threw interceptions and Halliday had the only touchdown with a 54-yard pass to Kristoff Williams in the final minute of the game.
Washington State needs a victory over the rival Huskies to avoid going winless in conference play for the second time in the last four seasons and to avoid yet another nine-game skid to close out a season. The Cougars lost their final nine games of 2009, also the last time they were winless in conference play.
While beating Washington wouldn't provide a remedy for all the problems the Cougars have faced in Leach's first year, it would give at least some solace of optimism heading into the offseason.
"I'm kind of looking forward to it," Leach said. "... I think they're already motivated. I think the biggest thing need to focus on is our effort, our work, our development.”
While a bowl berth is already secured for the Huskies, entering the postseason on a five-game win streak could make Washington even more appealing when the selections are finally made. Washington last won five straight regular-season games in 2000, when it won its last seven conference games on its way to a Rose Bowl berth.
The Huskies' offense has finally awakened the past two weeks, scoring 34 points against Utah and 38 last Saturday in a blowout win over lowly Colorado. After scuffling through most of the season, Keith Price now has three straight games with at least 230 yards passing and his eight touchdowns the last three weeks matched his entire total for the first eight games.
"The rapport with the receiving corps, the anticipation and understanding coverages and where guys are going to go has just really improved in the last month," Sarkisian said. "Again, that's a sign of a guy willing to work, willing to try and get better, and taking to coaching.”