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Notebook: Can the struggling UW secondary play its best game in the Alamo Bowl?

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SAN ANTONIO — It’s like an avalanche of injuries.

Jordan Perryman missed three games. Mishael Powell has missed four games. Julius Irvin missed six games. Davon Banks missed four games. Elijah Jackson lost three games. Dominique Hampton missed a game. Asa Turner lost three games. Vince Nunley missed 11 games.

At 10-2, the No. 12 Huskies stayed healthy at most points this fall… outside of the secondary.

“Listen, it happens, and everyone has had it in their careers. But for me, in 25 years, I’ve never seen anything hit an entire position group like it hit our position group,” said co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell Tuesday, two days before the UW’s Alamo Bowl meeting with the Texas number 20. “It just challenged us. I’ll be honest: it made us better trainers because we knew we had to find different mechanics and different ways to make guys succeed and stick together. That’s how things get flustered sometimes.

“The challenges were immense, there is no doubt. The challenges were extreme. But it also strengthens your team. It unites the guys. There are two things that can happen: it can tear you apart, or it can bring you together. In many ways, I think it brought us closer together as a group and built trust over time.”

It built trust… and left bruises. Months after starting corners Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon were selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, UW was ranked 91stst in the nation in passing defense (241.7 yards allowed per game), 96th in interceptions (7), 97th on opponent completion percentage (62.5%) 102na in opponent yards per pass attempt (7.8), 109th in touchdown passes allowed (25), 114th in the opponent’s passing efficiency rating (146.66) and 119th on third down defense (44.91% completions).

“By the state of Arizona, if you weren’t hurt, you probably weren’t playing,” said UW safety Alex Cook. “That was the reality.”

And as the UW experience waned, guys like nickel husky Dominique Hampton (6-3, 221) were given more individual coverage responsibilities as an inevitable result.

“There was certainly a point during the season where we were just trying to make sure players were in the right place at the right time and probably not exploring the full depth of defense,” Morrell said. “Because we had several youngsters who had to enter the field in some games that were really critical for us and they just didn’t have the experience of the game. So we wanted to put pressure on the guys that we knew could do the job.

“From the husky position, having Dom as a guy who is often covering the best opposing spot, I think he did a great job in that. We’re looking to be able to grow the scheme around athletic guys like that, and we can certainly do a lot more once we have our depth and our health sorted out.

Of course, if their secondary depth stayed even, maybe these Huskies were gearing up for the College Football Playoff.

As it is, they want to prove that they are better than the stats say.

“I think we haven’t played our best game yet, just because of this,” said Cook, who leads the UW with 77 tackles. “There were so many things that we had to tweak and tweak, based on who could do what. I just don’t think we were able to make the game plan we wanted, just because of the injuries. Now that everyone is healthy, we can play our best game we’ve ever played. I’m excited to play on Thursday.”

The Huskies are eager to snuff out the excuses — and prove that their secondary is more than a metaphorical kick signal. And theoretically, they should have ample opportunities against a Texas offense without their top two running backs (Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson) or an explosive vertical pass offense.

In nine games this fall, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers completed just 56.7% of his passes, throwing for 1,808 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions (plus a 46-yard long). Sophomore wideout Xavier Worthy leads the Longhorns with 53 receptions, 676 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.

On Thursday, Ewers said the Huskies “don’t do a lot of things [schematically] like recent teams we’ve seen, but what they do is really good. I think that’s their focus, sticking to what they love to do and what they’re good at. They play very hard and play well together and are very well coached. It should be a fun matchup.

On the other side of an avalanche, we’ll see if the UW secondary can make the most of it.

a familiar enemy

Pete Kwiatkowski will wrap up his second season as Texas’ defensive coordinator, looking to top his old team. The 56-year-old assistant left the UW in 2021 after seven successful seasons in Seattle.

When asked on Monday what prompted the move, Kwiatkowski said, “I’ve been on the West Coast my entire career. I had been in Washington for seven years and I felt the timing was right. When I grew up… Texas was – before all cable TV – Texas was Keith Jackson. Texas-Oklahoma. Texas-Nebraska. It always intrigued me. I think it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Kwiatkowski’s significantly improved unit ranks second in the Big 12 in total defense (362 yards allowed per game), opponent yards per carry (3.35), rushing defense (123 yards allowed per game), opponent yards per attempt in passing (6.4) and red zone defense (50% opponent TD percentage) and third in scoring defense (21.2 points allowed per game).

But this is a new challenge.

And a familiar enemy.

“Yeah, I know a lot of these guys, I’ve recruited a lot of them, and I obviously have a history with Washington,” Kwiatkowski said. “Their offense starts with that quarterback. [Michael Penix Jr.] He’s an excellent quarterback, very accurate. The O-line does a good job of keeping it clean, and they’ve got three really good wide receivers he can distribute the ball to, so we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us for sure. I know the guys are excited about this, the best offense in the country, and that’s why we’re going to play.

“We’ll have a great week of practice, prep, and then we’ll go out there and let go.”

extra point

  • The Alamo Bowl may mean more to redshirt rookie wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk – a Texas Tech transfer who was raised in Lufkin, 300 miles east of the Alamo Dome. “JP really fought hard to get the job he got,” UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said of Polk, who recorded 38 receptions for 649 yards and six touchdowns. “JP is really the kind of emotional leader in that room. I think being able to come back here and play a game like that in his own backyard is really special for him. But I think his preparation and the way he approached the game this year really stayed the same. He has a ton of energy. He has a big heart. He kind of plays around with it a little bit on his sleeve. It will be exciting to see him out there.”