The best way to sum up the season so far for the Huskies is to call it consistently inconsistent. Each game seems to have the same storyline. The Dawgs do some good things and they do some not-so good things. Excluding the USC and Cal games they've stayed in each game only to commit the most inopportune mistakes. They've followed up big plays like the 61-yard pass from Isaiah Stanback to Anthony Russo against ASU with penalties and other mental mistakes that keep them out of the end zone.
The defensive play, on the other hand has been consistently woeful. The battered secondary has been picked apart in nearly every game, and each Saturday seems no different than the next. Against Oregon State there was a better result overall, but the weather may have played a role in keeping the Beavers out of the end zone when Mike Hass let his best opportunity of the night literally slip through his fingers.
The Huskies rank near the bottom in most Pac-10 defensive categories, but one bright spot in an otherwise disappointing defensive story, is that somewhere in the Arizona desert the Dawgs managed to find the pass rush that had been AWOL against the marquee teams this season. Led by Greyson Gunheim's career high 2.5 sacks, UW racked up a season-high tying 7 sacks against the Sun Devils.
The 2.5 sacks against ASU and one against OSU tied Gunheim with Manase Hopoi's 4. With two games left in the season, those numbers are hardly eye-popping, but they do show improvement since Gunheim only managed only 3 sacks in eleven games last year.
For Gunheim, getting to the quarterback isn't rocket science. It just requires good discipline and knowing how to take advantage of opportunities. He said the defense focused more on keeping their feet moving to create a stronger pass rush in practice the week before the ASU game and that seemed to pay off. As for his sacks, they weren't the result of any elaborate scheme or specific move he's been working on.
"I just tried to keep my feet moving, take my steps and there was just an opening", he said.
All of this makes getting to the quarterback sound easy, but that hasn't been the case for the Huskies this season. Going into this week's game against Arizona the Huskies are tied for sixth in the PAC-10 in sacks, with twenty. Even that number is a bit deceiving because they've only been able to generate sacks in bunches, recording seven against Idaho and seven more against a make-shift offensive line at ASU.
After struggling in the first half two weeks ago against the Sun Devils, the defense had a gut check during half time. In the second half they came out fired up and with a different look. They tried to carry that momentum over to the Beaver game.
"We told each other we have to step it up because what we're doing now isn't working", Gunheim said.
During the ASU game, linebackers Joe Lobendahn and Chris Stevens started lining up on the ends. That new look seemed to create more openings for Gunheim.
"There was a point where it looked like the backers coming off the edge were definitely confusing him", said Gunheim of Devils QB Rudy Carpenter during that second half.
Yet, just when the Dawgs seem to find something that works - in this case the look Lobendahn and Stevens brought up on the line - adversity bit the Dawgs again. Senior linebacker Joe Lobendahn injured his left knee Saturday and is out for the final two games of this season, ending his UW career. It won't be easy to replace Lobendahn and his 76 tackles (second on the team).
"That is a very costly loss for this team," said coach Ty Willingham at the Founders Room on Monday. "He is the heart and soul - not just our defense - but our team."
Losing Lobendahn for the remainder of the season is like losing the battery that charges the husky defense. Even with Lobendahn in there big play interceptions and fumble recoveries have been missing this year for the Husky D. Despite the punishing play OSU brought to Montlake last weekend, the offense has done a better job of holding onto the ball, but the defense hasn't been able to create the big play.
"We need to bring more energy", Gunheim said about how to provoke more turnovers. "When someone does make a play the energy that's created is contagious."
Gunheim and the rest of the front line could not provide that spark, but did an excellent job to keeping the Beavers out of the end zone the entire game. Though the Beavers rank next to last in the PAC-10 in sacks given up, Gunheim managed to snag the only UW sack on the day.
"It doesn't really matter who you're playing against. You still have the same mindset. As a defensive lineman you just want to make plays and get sacks", he said.
Being a part of a squad that has only won two games in the last twenty can take its toll.
"We keep working hard. We're trying to fix the little things and quit making the mistakes we've been making over and over to get a win", he said.
Those mistakes have cost the Huskies the chance of picking up two or three victories this season. Teams that start to press for wins play not to lose and at times the Huskies have looked like that team. Playing tight can lead to over-thinking situations. When asked if he thought the team was pressing for a win, he responded, "I think so."
Gunheim's simple strategy of keeping his feet moving and looking for an opening could be applied to the rest of the team. Focusing on executing the fundamentals is essential if Washington hopes to win Saturday at Arizona. All they have to do is look to their next opponent for direction; after all they just beat OSU and crushed UCLA.
By winning a game they might be able to pick up the confidence needed to beat an equally struggling Washington State squad in The Apple Cup. Gunheim has a point in saying that on-the-field energy is contagious; so is winning and losing. And right now the Huskies have a bad case of losing.