Being an evil genius comes with a certain look. There’s the monocle, the Nehru jacket and, don’t forget, the cheesy and often forced catchphrases.
Pete Kwiatkowski wears black sunglasses only when needed. His choice of clothing is a baseball cap with a T-shirt or hoodie and unless he’s talking about defense, he doesn’t say much. Yet junior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven promises Kwiatkowski, who is Washington’s defensive coordinator, is indeed an evil genius.
“I don’t know where he got the ‘evil’ part,” Kwiatkowski said with a grin. “And I don’t know where he got the ‘genius’ part.”
What Kwiatkowski and his defense have done this season goes against conventional thought. The Pac-12 Conference’s profile is about flashy offenses in a league where the alleged defense is optional.
Or at least, it was the national perspective until this season. Standing ninth in the College Football Playoff rankings, Washington (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) is the best defense in America going into Friday’s 7:30 p.m. game at Stanford.
Yes. The Pac-12 is home to the best defense in college football. UW is first in total defense, second in scoring defense, third against the pass and sixth versus the run.
No other defense in nation, even defensive-minded Alabama, is in the Top 6 in those categories.
“I think after you learn the plays, you see why we’re running it and see why everyone is in certain plays at a certain time,” Huskies junior defensive tackle Vita Vea said. “I think you just look at it and see his schemes and it’s like, you’re in awe sometimes of doing it.”
There’s an irony to how UW’s defense became this good.
UW has established a reputation for controlling every aspect, from winning the line of scrimmage to being relentless on third down and other situations.
Kwiatkowski said the key to getting there was understanding some aspects of defense cannot be controlled.
“As detail-oriented as we are, it’s not sweating the small stuff. You can control what you can control,” Kwiatkowski said about his growth as a defensive coordinator. “My total focus is on that. There are certain things during the course of the season within a given week, a given whatever, might not be ideal.
“But a lot of that time, that stuff is out of your control.”
He cited injuries as an example.
The Huskies’ defense lost starting cornerbacks Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy to either long-term or season-ending injuries.
It prompted Kwiatkowski to trust sophomore Myles Bryant and redshirt sophomore Austin Joyner as the team’s new starting cornerbacks.
Bryant and Joyner, through two games, helped UW suppress UCLA’s passing attack and slow Oregon’s ground game for massive victories in consecutive games.
“It all starts with Coach K,” Burr-Kirven said. “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around my entire life. He knows more about football than almost anyone on this staff.”
Kwiatkowski doesn’t view himself as the primary or even secondary reason UW’s defense is the best in the nation.
He said every coach on the staff plays a role in why the team as a whole is successful.
Kwiatkowski also said the players have also been a big reason for the defense’s growth. He attributed to the team’s approach when it comes to recruiting.
“The first thing, obviously, is the tape doesn’t lie,” Kwiatkowski said. “Then you’re trying to find the guys who are passionate about football and have football intelligence.”
Petersen and his staff have their own method to how recruiting works. While it may work for them, it doesn’t always look like the shiniest of classes compared to other programs.
Take Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Ohio State, which are the four most recent programs to win the national title since 2014.
Using Rivals’ rankings, Alabama has picked up the No. 1 class three out of the last four seasons. FSU’s average classes rank between third and fourth. Ohio State’s average class is fourth while Clemson is 11th.
UW is between 31st and 32nd.
The defense the Huskies started in their last game featured two players who were four-star prospects, eight players who were three-stars and one player who wasn’t even ranked.
As a collective, UW’s group would barely amount to a three-star prospect.
But for right now, it’s the No. 1 defense in America.
“The big reason for our success is because our guys play hard, they’re passionate for the game and they want to get better,” Kwiatkowski said. “We give them everything we got as far as putting them in position to be successful.
“We keep it simple but complicated for other teams.”
NO. 9 WASHINGTON (8-1, 5-1 PAC-12 NORTH) AT STANFORD (6-3, 5-2)
7:30 p.m. Friday, Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, Calif.
The line: UW by 6
TV: FS1. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
Outlook: Not many teams have slowed Bryce Love (151 carries, 1,456 yards, 12 TDs) this year but it happened a week ago when Stanford fell in a 24-21 loss at Washington State.
Love was held to 16 carries for a season-low 69 yards but still ripped off one touchdown. He missed Stanford’s 15-14 win over Oregon State on Oct. 26 and returned to face WSU while recovering from an ankle injury.
Much of the Cardinal’s success is scripted around Love and how effective he can be. At this best, Love is one of the most dangerous players in college football. Aside from a 42-24 loss at Southern California, he’s kept Stanford within at least a field goal in every game.
Cardinal coach David Shaw and his staff have also provided Love with much-coveted insulation. The Cardinal have constructed an offensive line comprised of four-and five-star prospects and have once again found brutish tight ends capable of catching a pass. If there’s something holding the offense back, it would be the quarterback.
Senior Kevin Chryst (962 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs) has been far from sharp. He’s completed 54.2 percent of his passes. Sophomore K.J. Costello (597 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT) also struggled against WSU by completed 9 of 20 passes.
What might be even more surprising is Stanford’s defense. Usually one of the better groups nationally, the Cardinal are 73rd yet have two of the conference’s top standouts.
Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips (68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, five sacks) was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week on Oct. 30 and is one of the nation’s premier defensive linemen. Junior safety Justin Reid (35 tackles, five interceptions) was also a recipient of the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week earlier in October.
It’s likely the Huskies will go with balance given the Cardinal are 70th defending the pass and 81st against the run.
The pick: Washington 37, Stanford 23
Ryan S. Clark