As the season has progressed so has the play of the Husky defense. That evolution of success culminated this past Saturday in Tucson, Arizona with the Huskies first PAC-10 win in nearly two years.
The elements have been there all year. Despite the injuries the Husky defense has been able to slow some teams and keep the Dawgs in most games. They just needed some help from the offense. Two weeks ago they kept the Beavers out of the end zone, but lost due in large part to the offensive line getting blown up by the Beavers. But against the Wildcats on Saturday they were able to put it all together by stymieing what had started to become a high-powered offense to 14 points and stifling a freshman quarterback that had showed signs of brilliance before the Dawgs came to town.
Senior linebacker, Evan Benjamin was at the forefront of the attack again this past week. Over the last three games he's led the team each time in tackles, including a monstrous 17-tackle performance in the driving rain against Oregon State.
After the OSU game Benjamin noted the good things, "We cut down on a lot of mistakes and we tackled well."
They continued the solid tackling and smarter play Saturday against the Wildcats. They were also able to shake three interceptions out of freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama. Benjamin continued his terror with 10 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception and snagging PAC-10 Defensive Player of the Week honors along the way.
His on the field leadership has also spread to the locker room. Even during the losing streak the senior linebacker believed the team had the right upbeat attitude to change the course and on a team that has struggled for wins many of the young guys have looked to Benjamin to steady the ship.
"I've been saying it all year, just keep on working. And Coach Tyrone Willingham has been preaching the same thing. Just work", he said.
Benjamin believes that the hard work has started to pay off. "I see a lot of improvement from the first game versus Air Force to right now. There's been a drastic improvement in myself, the defense, and the whole team", he added.
As the Dawgs prepare for the 2005 version of the Apple Cup this week, maybe the biggest chore the Husky defense will be tasked with is stopping the nation's top rusher, Jerome Harrison. The run defense has been there for the Dawgs to some degree all season, but even Benjamin thinks stopping the run has been an area this team has improved in throughout the season.
"I think with our run fits. We were a little bit shaky at the beginning of the year with Air Force running the Wing-T attack, but I think each week we've gotten better", he pointed out when asked in what facet the defense has most improved on this season. "We've gotten some good looks at how to fit the run and where we need to be to be in the right place and that is one of the keys. Also I think our defensive backs have gotten a lot better. The past couple of weeks I see a lot of improvement in defending the run and making the right decisions. They've been playing really well."
Benjamin likes what he's seen in recent weeks from the secondary and it wasn't too long ago he was apart of that secondary. He made the move from safety to linebacker prior to last season and he definitely believes he is a better-rounded player since the move.
"It's been a great move for me. I feel I've been able to learn the defense real well inside and out from learning the whole scheme - corners to safety; linebackers to the d-line", said Benjamin. "It was tough at first, but I've been learning everyday. Whether it's at safety or linebacker I just want to get on the field and I think that's what the coaches like."
Beside the change in position he has also been a part of a senior class that has seen many changes at head coach during the last several years. Many players might question why they had to go through so many changes, but Benjamin takes a different approach when reflecting on his experience.
"I've learned so much from all of them", he said. "They all have something I like. Coach Neuheisel was a players' coach, coach Gilbertson loved the offense and coach Willingham is the guy that wants to get out there, work hard, and good things will happen. We've been growing as a group and trying to learn as much as we can from the new coaching staff but at the same time using things from the past to help us out."
The changes at Head Coach have also meant that Benjamin and the rest of the seniors on the defense have had to endure some changes in the defensive scheme, changes that come with a new Defensive Coordinator. For Benjamin defense is defense and Coach Kent Baer doesn't ask anything different than past coaches.
"Defense is tackling", he said. "Most defensive coaches want you to be a smart player, know your job in the scheme, and tackle. Coach Baer's scheme is a little bit different, but not too much. It's still based on gap control."
According to Benjamin the Dawgs defensive strategy is to make sure you're in the right gap to prevent the big run. Against the Cougars this Saturday plugging the gaps is going to be crucial in stopping Jerome Harrison so that Benjamin and rest of the senior class can close out with a victory over Washington State.
During his Husky career, Evan Benjamin has seen a lot of changes whether at head coach, defensive coach, or the position he has played. As he is preparing to play his final game as a Husky Benjamin sees many bright spots in the Huskies future starting with junior linebacker Scott White.
"We have some good leadership in Scott White coming back for next year", he said.
Benjamin doesn't think the future stops with White though. He's also impressed with the freshman talent that has infused this defense throughout the season.
"I think Chris Stevens and Darrion Jones are going to be good players. Chris is lucky that he's been able to see a lot as a freshman. He's been in some tough positions, but he's played very well. He has a great attitude and work ethic", Benjamin said. "And I think that Tahj (Bomar) is going to be an exciting middle linebacker. He's going to make a lot of plays. Not a lot of people have known about him because Joe has been in front of him. But as we saw in the OSU game, he can make some plays. He's going to be one of the leaders on this team next year."
As Benjamin has improved this season so has the entire Husky defense. Since Joe Lobendahn went down to a knee injury Benjamin has seemed to have stepped up his game even more. Currently third in the PAC-10 in tackles, with 95, he has put together a terrific senior campaign. Last year he led the team with 104 tackles and sometimes is overlooked for guys like Hopoi and Lobendahn, but his leadership and ability to always be around the ball is second to none and will be missed next year.