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December 2, 2005

The rear-view mirror and the road ahead


To be a fan is to be optimistic at the start of a season. It's part of the bargain. The team works to improve, and the fan base offers hope, even if it involves short-term memory loss. Before the first kickoff against Air Force, any sunny thoughts from the Husky faithful were clouded with begrudging realism. Coming off a 1-10 season, the 2005 squad was starting over with its third coach in four years. After Washington averaged 14 points per game last year, a level of futility not seen since 1969, purple-clad fans had to endure the sting of Husky-hatin', Jim soph-Moore-ish barbs. The proud program wasn't used to hearing things like, "The UDumb offense scored its fewest points in 35 years. The bad news? Ten starters return."

Given the lack of coaching continuity and a team talent level well shy of impressive, the Huskies needed some breaks to challenge the middle rungs of the Pac-10-the likes of Arizona State, Oregon State, WSU-if they were going to climb back up the conference ladder. They didn't get them. When the Cougars swiped the Apple Cup from their tenuous grasp, it was Washington's third loss of the season in the final 1:30. Defensive lapses contributed to the Huskies coughing up an 11-point fourth quarter lead against Air Force in the opener. Four weeks later at No. 20 UCLA, a questionable holding call negated a 50-yard touchdown run that would have put them up 24-10, keeping the door open for the Bruins. Maurice Jones-Drew walked through it with 68 seconds left, erasing the first significant win of the Tyrone Willingham era.

While Washington doubled its win total from the previous year, no one finds satisfaction in a 2-9 season. Yet this team was competitive in ways hardly conceivable in the anemic final weeks of 2004. They were two stops short of a 3-2 record heading into the bye week before Oregon. They hung with Notre Dame, currently ranked No. 7, for nearly three quarters; held UCLA (now No. 11) to their lowest output with a healthy Jones-Drew; and limited the nation's most explosive offense, USC, to a season-low for rushing, passing, and total offense.

Offense: Backwards pass foreshadows slide

With injuries to the offensive line hampering the running game for much of the year and the late-season struggles of the passing game, the offensive improvements this year were disappointing. The Huskies scored a touchdown more per game (21.5) in comparison to 2004, but their averages increased by just 15 yards rushing (to 135, 7th in the Pac-10) and 33 yards passing (to 223, 8th). Around the warm fuzzies of the breakthrough win in Tucson and James Sims Jrs' breakout in his final three games, there are some cold, hard truths. Washington threw for the fewest touchdowns in the conference (12) and scored the second fewest TDs overall.

The Huskies amassed over 200 yards rushing three times this season, but it was against the weakest run defenses in the Pac-10. The inconsistency running the ball set up a pattern of third-and-longs, which Isaiah Stanback and the receiving corps had little success converting. The Dawgs were last in first downs and next-to-last in third down conversions, with a paltry rate of 33.6 percent. Reducing the number of overthrown passes and dropped balls will be crucial next year.

The inability to sustain drives haunted them in the near-wins when the Huskies needed to run the clock, and was frustratingly apparent when games were within reach. Washington was one drive away from winning at Arizona State, and when Oregon State was limited to only field goals, the soggy Dawgs failed to capitalize as Stanback and Johnny DuRocher completed only 16 of 42 attempts combined in harsh conditions.

Stanback began the season in promising fashion, throwing for an average of 260 yards in the first four games. But following a career-high of 353 versus Notre Dame, the first-year starter never completed more than 14 passes the rest of the season. Perhaps because of the struggles, offensive coordinator Tim Lappano turned Stanback loose as a running threat, with the QB becoming the team's second-leading rusher with 515 yards gross. His net rushing of 353 helped him secure the UW's tenth-highest single season of total offense (2,489 yards). But the achievement was tarnished by his performance in the last four games. After the USC game, which got away from the Huskies when a backwards pass was recovered by the Trojans, Stanback completed just 45 percent of his attempts for less than 150 yards per contest.

Whether Stanback improves significantly with another year under the tutelage of Lappano or whether DuRocher emerges as the best passer will be one of the most important storylines of 2006.

"I'm expecting to have a very spirited competition," Willingham said in the final press conference of the season. "Not just at quarterback, but at wide receiver, running back, and at a lot of those spots. It should be exciting."

Running backs Louis Rankin and Kenny James will battle for the starter's role versus San Jose State Sept. 2. Rankin lead the team in rushing with 485 yards before his season was cut short early in the USC game with a bad case of tendonitis in his big toe. James had nine carries for 52 against UCLA, but lost the ball several times and lost the confidence of his coaches, falling in the depth charts and failing to see action in the last three games. Redshirt J.R. Hasty, who was named the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, will add the talents that shined at Bellevue previously.

The biggest question facing the team is who will be blocking for them. The offensive line loses five seniors, tackles Joe Toledo and Robin Meadows; Offensive Lineman of the Year, RG Tusi Sa'au; center Brad Vanneman; and back-up Tui Alailefaleula. Only three linemen return with significant experience, juniors Clay Walker and Stanley Daniels, voted Most Improved Offensive Player; and redshirt freshman tackle Nathan Flowers.

"The offensive line is the one that is hardest hit by numbers, relatively speaking, because the linebackers also, we lose two of three guys there with [Evan]Benjamin and [Joe] Lobendahn, so we have got some replacing to do there," Willingham said, hinting at the importance of recruiting this year. "The whole key, and the most important position on your team is the offensive line, so that is an area where we really have to do some restructuring. We have to do some realigning and find some bodies to add to some of the young bodies that we have."

The Huskies will have to replace the solid contributions of fullbacks Mark Palaita and Ty Eriks, but return all their receivers and tight ends from a young group in need of refining.

Defense: burned early, squad turns the corner

It was a bad year to be green at the corners. With the graduation of Derrick Johnson and Sam Cunningham, and the loss of key transfer Chris Handy due to academic eligibility issues, Washington was left with only one tested cornerback. Junior Matt Fountaine had a total of one start under his belt. Sophomores Roy Lewis and Durrell Moss were forced into the fray, with help from transfer Josh Okoebor, who hadn't played since 2002 due to injuries. The early results weren't pretty.

In a particularly potent year for Pac-10 attacks, their Achilles heel was exposed as Washington faced seven offenses in the nation's top 21 for passing yardage, not to mention seven teams in the scoring top 25. But with experience and improved health, the secondary started to gel. After allowing an average of 297 yards passing in the first eight games, the Huskies yielded an average of 218 yards in the last three contests. While the stat was aided by the rain in the Oregon State game, the improvement could be seen in the Apple Cup when the Cougar receivers were held silent for all but their first and last possessions.

The veteran starters at linebacker began the year slowly, burned by missed tackles, but emerged as the stalwarts they were projected to be. Evan Benjamin led the team in tackles with 109, third in the Pac-10, and Lobendahn finished seventh in the conference, missing the final two battles. Benjamin was lauded with the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week for his omnipresence versus Arizona and the KJR Defensive Player of the Year award. Joe Lobendahn's teammates honored him the Defensive MVP and the Guy Flaherty Most Inspirational awards. Junior Scott White finished fourth on the team in tackles with 79 and tied for second with 7.5 tackles for loss.

Despite a frustrating senior season in which he was usually double-teamed, Manase Hopoi departs as the school leader in tackles for loss yardage and with the fourth-most sacks. His presence at defensive tackle will be missed along with Mike Mapuolesega. The run defense improved over the course of year, despite Jerome Harrison's numbers last week, finishing fifth in the conference. The big shoes at linebacker and defensive line will need to be filled if the Huskies are to improve on the 419 yards in total offense allowed this year.

Special teams: strange formations, neglected kicker

The Huskies weren't immune to the growing trend of unorthodox punt formations, and like many schools, this led to some special teams misadventures. The Huskies had two punts blocks, several close calls, and one snap fumbled for the final nail in their coffin versus the Beavers. One formation featured QB Casey Paus as the short man, but it was never exploited for a first down. When punter Sean Douglas got the ball off, he had one of the best years in Husky history. He returns with the top UW career punting average with 42.6 yards.

The offensive woes contributed to the fact that Evan Knudson attempted only 15 field goals. Only three conference teams attempted fewer. The senior hit on 11, with only two notable misses from 28 yards against UCLA and Idaho. Michael Braunstein is expected to handle the placekicking and kickoff duties next year. The rest of the special teams were decent, but the kickoff coverage needs to improve.

Outlook

The merit of one's record is relative to its competition. If the Huskies played a WAC schedule, for instance, they'd likely have 8 or 9 wins. The UW schedule was ranked amongst the 15 most difficult in the Sagarin ratings, with the Pac-10 amongst the top 3 conferences this year after posting a 23-8 non-conference record (.742 winning percentage). An indication of the Pac-10's depth this season was illustrated when the fifth and sixth-best teams, Arizona State and Stanford, nearly upset No. 3 LSU and No. 7 Notre Dame, respectively. These Huskies struggled, but in one of the conference's most competitive years.

I asked Willingham last week which intangible qualities from this team will provide a good foundation for next year. "Overall, not giving up, staying committed when it would have been very easy to [fold] in one of those stretches where everything is written that you haven't won this, or you haven't won that. That kind of not giving in to the circumstances usually lends itself to being successful down the road. We need to get down that road quickly."

Developing two more starters for the offensive line and greater productivity from Rankin and James will be job one. Developing an astute, accurate passer will be the offense's second most pressing need. Promising tight ends Robert Lewis and Johnnie Kirton return, as well as the receiving firm of Shackelford, Russo, Ellis, and Williams. Former O'Dea High School All-American wide receiver Chancellor Young, who sat out this season following his transfer from Duke, will be a player to watch in spring practice.

The defense will draw on the steadiness of its two-year starters at safety, C.J. Wallace and Dashon Goldson. Wallace was second on the team in tackles, Goldson third. Depth in the secondary should improve with the arrival of California junior college defensive backs Jordan Murchison and Coye Francies, who can sign in December and are scheduled to enroll for winter quarter.

Tahj Bomar and Chris Stevens, possible starters at linebacker, will have to bulk up to withstand the rigors of every-down play. The defensive line will rebuild around Wilson Afoa, who was voted the Rising Lineman of the Year, and Greyson Gunheim, the surprise winner of the Defensive Lineman of the Year. Donny Mateaki, the Tough Husky award winner, will man the other defensive end. Jordan White-Frisbee is expected to return from a broken foot to plug the hole at defensive tackle.

Willingham would like the team's future leaders to be a clone of the attributes of two seniors, Paus and Lobendahn. "One does an outstanding job of leading with articulation. The other one does a great job of leading with example. A clone of that would be the guy that we really would like to give us the leadership for this football team, a combination of both bodies. Those guys will be sorely missed."

In his first full year of recruiting at Washington, Willingham estimated that the Huskies will have 20 scholarships available. The Huskies currently have eight verbal commitments and the coaching staff returns to the recruiting trail as the direct contact period begins this week. In addition to their postseason evaluations, the staff has identified their recruiting priorities. NCAA regulations don't allow them to comment on a specific prospect, but players like Bellevue's Stephen Schilling, a five-star offensive tackle, and Fenuki Tupou, a 6-foot-6, 330-pound, four-star offensive lineman from Sierra College in Rocklin (Calif.), are considered near the top of their list.

"Every class is important. Last year's class was critical. You start to lay the foundation of the character of your team," Willingham said. "This will be a year that we'll have more scholarships available, so now you're talking about having even more impact in that equation."

The coach doesn't think the recruiting pitch is that difficult, despite the recent struggles. "I think it is really quite simple, we have great tradition, there is great passion for the program and I think there is excellent leadership. We need some young men that want to join in and make this once again the best program in the Pac-10."

Even with back-to-back losing seasons, Washington was second only to the two-time defending national champions in Pac-10 attendance. None of the other bowl-bound Pac-10 schools can boast better support than the nearly 65,000 that rallied at Husky Stadium this fall. And no conference foe can make the claim to being ranked at least one week of every season from 1977 to 2003. That's a quarter-century of tradition to hang your helmet on. It's easy to forget that as recently as 2001 the Huskies won the Rose Bowl and finished No. 3 in the polls, while USC had seven losses. Records change, the foundation for success doesn't.



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