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Road to Recovery: Washington

Great programs on hard times.
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Nationally, aside from its obviously dominant teams from 1990-92, Washington probably doesn't get its due as a consistent power over the last quarter century. Under three different head coaches from 1975-2002, in fact, the Huskies were the best program in the Pac Ten by a decent margin, won eight conference championships and had 26 straight winning seasons. The post-Neuheislian malaise, though, has been a cruel, bitter pill:

"Improvement" has been the buzz from the moment Ty Willingham was hired, and it hasn't been confined to the Seattle faithful clinging to their latte macchiatos (light on the foam): a very willing national media briefly ranked the Huskies in the top 25 after a 4-1 start in 2006 and a 2-0 start last year. From there, they lost six straight and nine of eleven, respectively, and wealthy alums were offering to create scholarships in honor of Willingham's termination.

What Went Wrong: Anything involving an airborne ball last year was likely to end in disaster, whether it was leaving the supercharged but erratic right arm of Jake Locker or against the equally inconsistent coverage of the Husky secondary. Locker had easily the worst completion percentage among regular Pac Ten starters and the next-to-worst pass efficiency rating; no quarterback in the NCAA's top 100 in efficiency finished below a 52 percent completion rate, where Locker (nowhere near the top 100) completed just a little over 47 percent. After an opening cake walk at Syracuse, he threw at least one interception in every game he finished except one, in which the redshirt freshman was 6 of 14 for 16 yards and had to leave the game against Oregon State.

On the other side, U-Dub was the bottom-feeding unit in the conference across the board: tenth in rush defense, tenth in pass efficiency defense, tenth in total defense. Only the generosity of Washington State's D kept the Huskies out of tenth in scoring defense, too, and that didn't stop Alex Brink from throwing five touchdown passes and bringing WSU from behind to win a predictably pinball-ish Apple Cup, 42-35. Washington played six games in `07 against ranked opponents, and those offenses averaged 260 rushing on 5.7 per carry, a lot of that coming from a single, devastating afternoon by the pre-Dixon injury Oregon machine: 62 carries, 465 yards, six touchdowns. Even aside from that disaster, though, the only teams that encountered any kind of trouble moving the ball on Washington were Syracuse and Stanford.

Yes! Don't think! Just run, you thoroughbred bastard!
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What Went At Least Moderately Right: Unreliable as he was as a passer, Locker was a beast of a read option runner, accounting for over 1,100 yards before sacks despite missing a full game and a half. Louis Rankin's 1,300 yards are a little misleading (he had four huge games against terrible defenses amid twice as many mediocre days against tougher opposition) and he's graduating, anyway, but  given the nondescript stagnation of the running game since the 2000 Rose Bowl season, Locker's entry to the equation was a significant boost - "one-dimensional," after all, is better than "no dimensional." The "tougher opposition" also shouldn't be discounted: few offenses of any variety were successful against Boise State, Ohio State, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Oregon State, all of which finished in the top 30 nationally in total defense.

Changes, Building Blocks and Other Cautious Optimism: Locker looks and runs like Tim Tebow and has the arm to be this year's version of Juice Williams, another athletic, subpar passer who advanced from raw meat in the pocket as a freshman to a competent, somewhat balanced quarterback whose team wound up in the Rose Bowl as a sophomore. When you can really run in a system designed to exploit that ability for all it's worth, the passing only has to be good enough that it's not a liability. There is nothing physically keeping Locker from making that progression. Don't get carried away by the "Rose Bowl" part of that comparison (Washington was not nearly as close to a breakout season last year as Illinois was in 2006) but also know that every overworked defensive coordinator in the Pac Ten wakes up after collapsing on his desk at night with "No. 10" stained on his face and brain. All the other skill talent will be new, so this team's immediate hopes read Locker, Locker, Locker.

Obstacles: Again, all the other skill talent will be new, along with three-fourths of the secondary before the rest of the defense's ongoing incompetence comes into play. And, what, you were expecting a break in the nation's most brutal schedule? The 2008 slate throws BYU, Oklahoma and rebuilding but talent-soaked Notre Dame into the mix.  This is Ty's make-or-break year, and even an optimistic team will go into the season expecting ot be the underdog in eight of its first ten games.

Target Date For Resumption of Glory: Again, Willingham has no grace period. By the start of November, if there is any hope, his team should be in the 4-3/3-4 range with a visit to USC standing as the pivot of the season. It won't be so much about winning that game - close calls the last two years notwithstanding, forecasting a Husky win in L.A. is out of the question - as it will be putting up a fight and building momentum for the mandatory bowl push over the last four games, which are all winnable. Come out of `08 strong, and the immediate future with one of the best all-purpose quarterbacks in the country is bright. Fizzle down the stretch for the third year in a row, and 2009 is just another rebuilding year under a new regime.