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No. 12 Washington’s high-powered offense will challenge defensive improvement of No. 20 Texas

In defensive FEI, the Longhorns went from No. 52 last year to No. 10 this year. But slowing down the Huskies won’t be an easy task for Pete Kwiatkowski’s crew.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Eleven years ago, a Washington Huskies team led by Steve Sarkisian faced off against the Baylor Bears in the Alamo Bowl in a 67-56 shootout won by the Bears that featured Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III throwing for 295 yards and a touchdown while Baylor ran for 482 yards and eight touchdowns in massing 777 total yards of offense.

“We were just talking about it, yeah, and I remember Keith Price was our quarterback, and he had a fantastic game,” Sarkisian said on Wednesday. “I think he accounted for seven touchdowns, threw for over 400 yards; I mean, it was a fantastic performance, going against RG3, who was the Heisman Trophy winner at that time. I also remember we couldn’t stop the run. It felt like they were handing the ball off and it was just chunk after chunk.”

After Washington blew an opportunity to go up by three scores, the Baylor offense took advantage, outscoring the Huskies 43-21 in the second half.

“I hope it doesn’t go that way again,” Sarkisian said. “My neck was sore after that. I felt like it was a tennis match.”

For the No. 20 Texas Longhorns against the No. 12 Washington Huskies on Thursday in the Alamo Bowl, the incentive in avoiding a game with 123 total points scored isn’t just about whether a Texas offense missing star running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson can hang with Washington playing a redshirt freshman quarterback and backup running backs.

It’s about how disappointing allowing 50-plus points to the Huskies offense would be after all the improvement Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense showed on the field this year after finishing last season ranked No. 52 in defensive FEI, No. 51 in total defense, tied for No. 94 in plays allowed of 60-plus yards, No. 99 in scoring defense, and No. 102 in third-down defense.

In Kwiatkowski’s second year, aided by scheme continuity and the addition of special assistant to the head coach Gary Patterson, Texas is currently No. 10 in defensive FEI and No. 28 in scoring defense despite some continued struggles on third down (No. 82) and a bend-but-don’t-break style (No. 51 in total defense), an improvement process that started a year ago as the staff tried to spike the defense’s learning curve.

“Starting last winter, the emphasis on the fundamentals, obviously the scheme and all that was a big part of the learning curve from last year to this year,” Kwiatkowski said on Monday. “Going back to just the fundamentals, the nuts and bolts of how you play defense, effort, running to the ball, tackling, blocking protection, all the technique and skill that these guys need to do to execute at a high level, started with that, and then as the season went on, we had success.

“Guys felt it, saw it, and I think as a whole, the confidence level grew and grew and grew. By the end of the year, they were a lot more trust with everybody, and they played — the whole season they played their tails off, played with great effort, physical, played fast, and executed at a pretty high level, and with that came the confidence.”

A key turning point came early in the season when then-No. 1 Alabama visited Austin in a game that most national observers thought would be a blowout. Vegas agreed, slotting the Longhorns as 20.5-point underdogs. But instead of getting run off Campbell-Williams Field, Texas battled until the final seconds, holding Alabama to only 20 points and forcing the Crimson Tide to narrowly escape Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Field thanks to a last-second field goal.

“Everybody knows what Alabama is all about, and I know going into it, everybody is excited to go out and play the best. They had a great week of preparation, and then they went out there and got it done, made the plays, stuck together when they had that long run, and just kept chipping away,” Kwiatkowski said.

“That’s the key to the deal. It’s a long game, and when the guys trust each other and execute what they’re supposed to do and they do it with great effort and they’re physical and flying around and playing with great energy, that’s when you play really good team defense.”

Big plays from Texas junior linebacker Jaylan Ford helped improved the confidence of the snubbed Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and the group’s confidence overall. Ford came up with an interception in the end zone in a close win over Iowa State at home eventually sealed when Ford came up with the game-clinching fumble recovery. An interception before halftime against Kansas State set up a key touchdown in the eventual seven-point win in Manhattan. And a late interception against Baylor helped put the Bears away to end the regular season.

But Washington’s offense, featuring a handful of players Kwiatkowski helped recruit when he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, will provide a significant challenge for the Texas defense — the Huskies rank No. 5 in offensive FEI, led by transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr., an Indiana transfer who leads the nation in passing yards per game while throwing 29 touchdowns this season.

“I think as we watched film, we noticed that Washington has a lot of creativity,” Ford said. “As Coach said, they’ve got a great quarterback, and I think they just do a great job of creating mismatches for their receivers or just getting even their running backs involved in the pass game. We noticed they run a lot of concepts, kind of manbeaters and stuff like that.”

Washington is tied for 11th nationally in passing plays of 40-plus yards, putting pressure on the Texas defense to avoid the big plays that have plagued the Longhorns at times since the Huskies will run fades and posts looking to take the top off Kwiatkowski’s defense.

Disrupting Penix won’t be easy, either — Washington has allowed only seven sacks this season, tied for second nationally, thanks to an offensive line that ranks No. 1 nationally in passing downs sack rate.

“When you protect your quarterback and he don’t get hit, the offense is really moving smoothly, and then you can execute a lot of plays that you want to run and go against the defense for us,” Texas senior defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said. “I think they really do good at protecting the quarterback, really just doing plays to where the quarterback don’t get hit, so I think they do good with that.”

Because the Huskies rarely get behind the chains thanks to sacks or tackles for loss allowed (No. 1 nationally), it’s extremely difficult to get them off the field as head coach Kalen DeBoer’s offense converts third downs at an astounding rate — 57.1 percent, No. 1 nationally by four and a half percentage points. In the last six seasons, only Alabama in 2020 and Army in 2017 have bested that conversion rate.

So the Texas defense may end up relying on turnovers or red-zone defense to end Washington drives. And while the Huskies aren’t particularly susceptible to giveaways, tying for sixth nationally with 10 on the season, they have had some issues scoring touchdowns in the red zone, ranking No. 43 with a touchdown rate of 66.2 percent.

Penix did throw two of his seven interceptions in the loss against UCLA with the first leading to a Bruins touchdown on the next play in an eight-point loss by the Huskies. In the season’s only other loss, the upset by Arizona State, Penix threw an interception returned for a touchdown in a seven-point win by the Sun Devils.

For the Longhorns, then, the defense won’t just have to be opportunistic — the team overall will have to convert on any mistakes by Penix and quickly turn them into touchdowns.

And in typical Kwiatkowski fashion, Texas may end up bending, but has to avoid breaking against one of the nation’s best offenses as Sarkisian tries to avoid a repeat of 2011.

“We’re going to have to score; we understand that, but hopefully we don’t have to get ourselves to 60,” Sarkisian said. “That would not be good for us and probably not for them, either. Hopefully it’s just a good football game. Hopefully we tackle well, which is going to be important. That’s always your concern going into a bowl game when you’re off for about a month is tackling and then conditioning.”