September 30, 2008

Are there any answers?

Tyrone Willingham never imagined that rebuilding the University of Washington football program would be this difficult. In his fourth season at the helm of a once storied program, Willingham is just 11-29 and on the verge of Washington's first 0-5 start in 39 seasons.

Last Saturday's contest against the Stanford Cardinal was supposed to be a get healthy game, a chance for this youthful team to find it's footing and cultivate some confidence. Instead, the Huskies suffered their sixth straight loss dating back to last season and Willingham's rocky tenure on Montlake appears to be crumbling beneath his feat.

When asked on Monday why he is still the man for the job - Willingham quickly and confidently stated, "Because I have the enthusiasm, the concentration and focus for it. I'm still very much into what I am doing."

You would expect nothing less from such a steadfast man, grounded in principal and proud sometimes to a fault. While Willingham is not entirely to blame for the current problem, especially when you consider what he stepped into, he now needs to shoulder it. For the first time since his job security has been questioned, both Willingham and offensive coordinator Tim Lappano have publicly admitted it's effecting this young team. The week leading up the Stanford game, team leader Juan Garcia said the contest will either show people the real the Huskies or show that they suck. How does a team move forward when its leaders have begun to question if they belong?

"The thing that you have to be able to understand is that Juan played one of his better football games on Saturday," said Willingham about the statement. "He will be taking this team forward and he will say that we sucked at certain things and it sucks that we didn't win but the champion in Juan and the fighter that he is will be leading us into the next battle. I am not concerned about his approach and he will be ready."

Unfortunately for the Huskies it's not Garcia or even the rest of the offense they need to worry about. Washington's defense is allowing 507 yards per game this season, ranking them No. 118 in the country. They haven't notched a sack in four games and appear unable to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It was easy to forgive the defense's shortcomings in the first three games. You could simply chalk it up to a youthful squad going against three of the top offenses in the county. However, after the Stanford Cardinal came into Husky stadium and put up their season average in yards in the first half alone, without their best player on the field, it's now time for Husky nation to panic.

Football begins and ends in the trenches. Right now, a Husky defensive line that is dependant on three true freshmen to give quality minutes is not getting the job done. Can Washington fans expect much of change between now and the end of the season?

"I think they [defensive line] are far better then when they started the season," said Willingham. "Sometimes that improvement is incremental but they are getting better. What I am expecting is that at some point the light is going to go on and at some point you will see some of the things that allowed them to start in the first place. I think they are getting better and will continue to get better."

Is youth alone to blame?

"It is a big issue," explained Willingham. "You don't make an excuse with it, but I think it is a big issue. If you were to ask a player when he would be his best - his freshman or his senior year - I think he would obviously say as a senior."

Experience will be gained game by game, but these freshmen will be 18 and 19 year old young men all season long. The same problems that plagued them in week one will plague them in week eight, week ten and week twelve. As the loses mount how can an always confident and stoic Willingham keep his players motivated? Will his message of stay the course, keep chopping wood and put the loses behind you continue to resonate with his players?

"With the young men you have today you always have to have a new message or at least a new way to present it," Willingham explained. "That is the age we live in. I kind of call it the seven-minute culture because there are TV commercials every seven minutes. At the same time that doesn't mean you can't drive home the same messages. No matter what you do there are fundamentals to reading, fundamentals to writing, fundamentals to athletics, fundamentals to everything you do and you've got to learn those fundamentals. Those have to be apart of the game and you can't get away from those. But, you do have to change things up and have some variety. I have to come up with a new way of saying something consistent that catches their imagination."

Don't expect any miracles, or an elixir to cure all of the Husky ills.

"No matter what you change it is still a game of running, throwing, tackling and blocking," said Willingham.

So why isn't his team running faster, throwing more accurately, blowing up bigger holes and tackling better? Only Willingham and his staff can answer that question and they will need to crack the code soon or it will be too late.

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