Steve Emtman, the most decorated player in University of Washington football annals, was like an infantry tank. The defensive tackle rolled up to the line of scrimmage, arms rotating wildly, crushing everything in his path.
Offensive linemen. Running backs. Quarterbacks. Teammates.
Three decades ago, people were afraid of him, ran from him, couldn’t run on him and were seriously injured by him.
While there has never been another Emtman, the Huskies have trotted out some reasonably fearsome defensive-line successors in his wake. In recent seasons, Danny Shelton, Vita Vea, Greg Gaines and Levi Onwuzurike, all accomplished collegians, are now well-compensated NFL run-stuffers. Vea, in fact, is considered the best at his position in the pros.
Now in a season where insurance-claim adjusters are totaling up the damages left by a multitude of UW coaching inadequacies, suspensions and firings, the defensive line has been ruled a total loss as the Huskies (4-6, 3-4 in Pac-12) prepare for a noon Saturday game in Boulder against Colorado (3-7, 2-5). Having fired head coach Jimmy Lake, the Huskies remain under temporary management for the final two regular-season games.
Of all the shortfalls for this team, the guys currently responsible for stopping the run have failed so miserably, opponents almost unanimously have taken a look at the scouting report, scrapped the pass and turned back to the 1960s overnight. They run, and run unopposed.
“For the most part it was missed tackles, and it was a run fit here and there,” Bob Gregory, UW interim head coach and defensive coordinator, said after the Saturday home loss to Arizona State. “That’s usually what it comes down to.”
Opponents no longer even disguise what they’re doing against Gregory’s defenders. It’s shove the ball down the Huskies’ throat, because they can.
Arizona State’s Rachaad White rushed for 184 yards a week after Oregon’s Travis Dye piled up 211 at Husky Stadium. Two months earlier at Michigan, Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins tag-teamed the Huskies for 171 and 155 rushing yards.
Add to that UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet zipping through for 131 and Oregon State’s B.J. Baylor churning out 111. That’s a lot of charitable donations.
Almost every opponent from Montana in the season opener to the Sun Devils has taken the easy way out. There’s been no mystery. Passing arms stay holstered.
In its 35-30 victory, ASU felt compelled to throw 16 times, completing 10 for 90 yards.
The week before, the usually wide-open Oregon offense put the ball in the air 20 times for 10 completions and 98 yards.
Oregon State and Michigan each launched the ball 15 times and hit on 7, the Beavers picking up 48 yards and the Wolverines 44.
Even woeful Arizona, 0-7 at the time, threw just 21 times for 13 completions and 62 yards.
The last time opponents played anything like this steadily, coaches such as Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal and Bud Wilkinson were famous for three yards and a cloud of dust. The rest of college football was all on board.
UW defenders have tried everything, including four-, three- and two-man lines. They’ve started six different players up front, searching for anyone who can get off a block, get a handful of jersey and pull down.
In 2020 during Lake’s first season in charge at the UW, there were signs of failure. In the four-game season, Utah and Stanford ran all over the Huskies.
Emblematic of the quick fixes tried during the oh-so-brief Lake era, a low-profile, quality-control assistant, Rip Rowan, was promoted to defensive-line coach and entrusted with finding a solution. Lake elevated Rowan to take defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s spot when the other guy left for Texas and shuffled roles.
The coaches thought they could build the front wall around a pair of experienced sophomores in 6-foot-2, 300-pound Tuli Letuligasenoa and 6-2, 330-pound Taki Taimani. Yet one seems too small, the other too heavy. Neither has been a disruptor on the order of the feted UW linemen over the past decade.
Others in the mix have been 6-foot-3, 305-pound redshirt freshman Faatui Tuitele, presumably injured over the past month; 6-foot-2, 295-pound redshirt freshman Jacob Bandes, who drew a start against ASU and one at Michigan; and 6-foot-1, 275-pound Noah Ngalu, who played for the first time in several games against the Sun Devils.
Among them, the five veterans have registered three sacks, all by Tuitele.
If there’s a hope, promising true freshman Voi Tunuufi looks undersized at 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds, but he’s exceedingly quick on his feet. He’s come up with three sacks. Fellow freshman Kuao Pechora, a little bigger at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, likewise was pegged for considerable playing time. But he’s missed most of the season with a foot injury. The two need a lot of playmaking help.
For now, the DT legacy of dominance has come to a halt. No foe carrying a football is stopped for long. No defensive tackle has started all 10 games, as coaches maniacally shuffle groups hoping for an answer.
Together, they haven’t stopped anyone, giving up a generous 204.3 rushing yards per game, 11th in the Pac-12 Conference, ahead of only Stanford at 230.7. Oregon is tops at 121.2. The line’s shortcomings have put too much pressure on the rest of the defense. They’ve made opponent game-planning a breeze.
A new coach will need to tackle this problem before any other. The Huskies bosses should insist that the new guy have it in his contract that he bring with him a monster defensive tackle or two, not to mention an experienced line coach.
Fix this problem and Emtman, who’s not been around Husky Stadium for a few years, might even roll in again and watch.
More of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist Dan Raley’s work can be found here at si.com/maven