Michigan running back Blake Corum leaves the Huskies’ defensive back Kamren Fabiculanan behind as he scores on a 67-yard run in the second quarter, Sept. 11, 2021 in Ann Arbor, MI. Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

The Huskies better find their big boy pads.

In their last eight losses, dating back to 2019, Jimmy Lake’s run defense has disappointed at an uncomfortably consistent rate.

In six of those eight losses, UW surrendered at least 150 rushing yards and four yards per carry — with an opposing rusher entering the end zone all eight times. And it’s no coincidence that they’ve struggled most consistently against physically formidable pro-style attacks — like Cal, and Stanford, and Michigan.

Stopping the run

In their last eight losses, the Huskies run defense has disappointed.

So it should come as little surprise that, after his offense torched UW for 343 rushing yards and four scores in a 31-10 win on Sept. 11, Michigan left tackle Ryan Hayes told local media that “we knew going into this game we were going to run the ball as much as we could, because we knew they couldn’t really stop it.”

Likewise, Cal — which heads to Husky Stadium for its Pac-12 opener on Saturday — currently ranks 10th in the country in yards per carry (6.1).

The Golden Bears are going to run the ball as much as they can.

Can the Huskies — finally — stop it?

“They’re a physical football team,” UW defensive line coach Rip Rowan admitted. “They’re physical up front. They play with a lot of tight ends. They’ve got two backs that are 230 pounds and they run hard. Even the quarterback’s not a small guy. He’s 6-3, 230. They’ve got big people handling the football, so that always makes it tough.”

Added junior safety Alex Cook: “At the end of the day, it’s football. You’ve got to put your big boy pads on at a certain point. You can’t just always drop back in coverage. You’ve got to put your big boy pads on, put your work hat on and go hit something.”

That’s easier said than done. Because, in the last three seasons, UW’s once-dominant run defense has steadily slipped.

UW’s run defense has slipped in recent years.

Year Opponent rush yards per game (Pac-12 rank)

  • 2014 124.07 (2nd)
  • 2015 125.31 (2nd)
  • 2016 133.93 (2nd)
  • 2017 100.85 (2nd)
  • 2018 116.14 (2nd)
  • 2019 126.38 (5th)
  • 2020 161.25 (5th)
  • 2021 175.0 (10th)

Opponent yards per carry (Pac-12 rank)

  • 2014 3.28 (2nd)
  • 2015 3.29 (2nd)
  • 2016 3.65 (1st)
  • 2017 2.86 (1st)
  • 2018 3.53 (2nd)
  • 2019 3.81 (5th)
  • 2020 4.54 (7th)
  • 2021 4.65 (11th)

Of course, it’s difficult to produce a dominant run defense without a dominant defensive lineman. For years, UW produced a steady string of those — from Danny Shelton (a 2015 first-round pick), to Vita Vea (a 2018 first-round pick), to Greg Gaines (a 2019 fourth-round pick), to Levi Onwuzurike (a 2021 second-round pick).

To this point, Tuli Letuligasenoa, Sam “Taki” Taimani, Faatui Tuitele, Jacob Bandes and Co. have yet to match their predecessors’ production.

But the goal is personal improvement, not chasing ghosts.

“I think the guys are very aware of (that history),” Rowan said. “I don’t think we use it at all. We talk about more of the tradition of the defense as a whole, how we expect to play defense here at Washington. But I don’t believe in comparisons, like, ‘Hey Tuli, you’ve got to be like Vita Vea.’ I’m not a believer in that. I think comparisons are death.

“If you have an 18-22-year-old kid trying to compare himself to someone who was a first-round draft pick and has done all these great things, that’s just not fair to ask of him. So for all those guys, don’t compare yourself to anybody else. You’ve got to be the best Tuli or Taki or Jacob that you can be. You can’t be anybody else.”

Maybe so. But against Cal, they have to be better. In a 20-19 lightning-delayed upset in 2019, the Bears bullied their way to 192 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry. And now, they’re bolstered by another bulldozer in 220-pound running back Damien Moore — who has produced 237 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry and five touchdowns in his first three games.

On Saturday, it’ll be on everyone to stop the run — the defensive linemen, the linebackers, the corners and safeties.

Like Michigan, Cal’s game plan is not a secret.

Prepare your big boy pads.

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