It’s easy to hold Nick Holt and staff accountable for the embarrassing defense; it’s harder to accept responsibility for how bad 0-12 really was to the program’s future.
Lost in the cavalcade of note-taking, joke-cracking, tweeting and “Exorcist”-like head-spinning that was part of reporting on the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, was an early moment that foretold the demise of Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
Actually, in hindsight, those moments were many across three years. This one stood out Thursday because it was so casually insulting.
On Baylor’s second possession of the game tied at 7, the Huskies’ defense actually forced the Bears into a fourth-down-and-one at the Washington 36-yard line. Not only did the Bears pass on the idea of a field goal, their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Robert Griffin III, didn’t even glance at the sideline. Didn’t even huddle the team.
He just brought them to the line of scrimmage and, as soon as the referees got out of his way, took the snap and handed the ball to running back Jarred Salubi, who thundered 36 yards up the middle for a touchdown.
It’s understandable that a team that averages 571 yards a game is very confident about getting a single yard. But to not even pause a moment with concern over whether a Huskies’ scheme or player might thwart them and force the ball to turn over, then score a touchdown off a simple blast play . . . well, that was a back of the hand to Holt, his coaches and players that said, “We are going to lay on you the most miserable night of your football lives, and there’s nothing you’re going to do about it but sniffle.”
Sniffle, they did. Suffer, they did. Fail, they did. To the surprise of absolutely no one.
Certainly not to the Baylor offensive coaches, who saw enough helplessness on game videos of the Huskies defense to devise a farewell game plan for the seniors and Griffin that will be talked about in Texas like they talk about the Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1970s.
Nor was it a surprise to anyone who watched the Huskies in 2011. After I made my pre-game prediction of Baylor 66, Washington 41, I heard from a couple of friends that I was being unduly harsh. I told them I had put 72 down, but figured Baylor would be playing much of the fourth quarter with reserves on offense.
Turns out the Huskies offense, with a mostly healthy Keith Price, forced the Bears to go hard all evening. Which made the defense look even worse. In previous blowout losses to USC and Stanford, the opponents were in control early, and throttled back to save starters.
So the true depth of defensive ineptitude was on national display Thursday. As much fun as it was to watch the offensive pillow fight, the UW’s defense was so embarrassing that it forced head coach Steve Sarkisian, who may have had a firm nudge from his boss, athletic director Scott Woodward, into the hardest decision of his three-year tenure at Washington Saturday — firing a friend he begged to come here from USC, where he was happy working under Pete Carroll.
As much as the decision, which included the firings of linebackers coach Mike Cox and Jeff Mills was a no-brainer, it wasn’t a no-hearter. Sarkisian’s steady, sometimes strident defense of Holt betrayed a personal passion beyond a professional obligation.
They were thr coordinators under Carroll from 2006-2008. In that final season at USC, Holt’s defense finished second in the FBS in total defense (222 yards a game) and first in scoring defense (9 a game). The Trojans had three shutouts and held eight of 12 regular-season opponents to seven or fewer points.
When Holt was hired as DC by Carroll after the 2005 season, the Trojans’ defense was ranked 48th in total defense. So Holt appeared to know a little something about rebuilding.
So did he suddenly get stupid?
No. He drew a pair of deuces and was told to win the pot. That was a dead man’s hand.
Does any Huskies fan honestly think that a different coach would have made Cort Dennison bigger, Nate Fellner faster, Alameda Ta’amu more relentless,Everrette Thompson more consistent, Quinton Richardson more alert or Desmond Trufant, Princeton Fuimaono, John Timu and Sean Parker more experienced?
The argument can be made that Jamaal Kearse, Danny Shelton and Josh Shirley should have played more sooner, but would that have made a material difference?
Ultimately, the game is more about talent than coaching, and the Huskies don’t have very much experienced, Pac-12 talent. It is largely a legacy of the era of Tyrone Willingham, who was fired mid-2008, ruining an entire class that normally would be contributing heavily by now.
Most fans and media are reluctant to blame college players because most observers understand, now more than ever, that the college system is a rip-off for players. To criticize them harshly in public amounts to an unfair pile-on. I subscribe to that notion, but this is not blaming them individually for mistakes they already know they’ve made. It is simply a collective request for common sense when it comes to the compulsion for rolling heads after unpleasant entertainment outcomes.
In their third year, Sarkisian and his coaches simply haven’t — and were unlikely to have — fixed everything that was wrong with a program that was the first in NCAA history to have a 12-0 season and and 0-12 season. They gambled on emphasizing high-end offensive recruits to keep pace with the game. On that front, the coaches won more than they lost.
As a program, they have had dramatic wins, heartbreaking losses and a general uptick that has been commendable, without too much criminality or, so far, NCAA rule-breaking. Holt and his defensive assistants can be cited for a lack of attention to the fundamentals of tackling, as well as lapses in getting players assignment-correct, whether through overload or under-coaching.
Given the breadth and depth of shortcomings in a world of urgent gratification, the firings were probably necessary simply because the failures were so dramatic they can’t be marginalized. But any significant coaching changes with a month left before signing day is likely to be of little help.
Patience, it seems, is no longer trending in college football. It’s easier to execute on the easy excuse than wait around for hard work to pay off.