Quick Quacks

It wasn't that long ago the rivalry between the Huskies and the Ducks was tinged with more than a touch of acrimony – perceived jealousy of the Dub's successes tainted the northerner's view of everything green and yellow and a conviction of a condescending attitude toward their cross-border rival spiced all things regarding Montlake U in the eyes of the flatlanders.

Much of this friction was aided and abetted by players on both sides, but it was also distinctly a function of the Jim Lambright/Rick Neuheisal eras. Those two regimes coincided with elevated expectations in Eugene and to a large degree the happenings of those years placed more fuel in the fire than lead to any sort of determination about whose perspective was more accurate.

That isn't quite the case as the 2005 Huskies come to call during what was originally a bye week between two trips to the southwest.

On the heels of a horrific 1-10 season in 2004, the successor to Neuheisal, Keith Gilbertson resigned leading to the hiring of deposed Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham.

1-10 football seasons generally do bring about coaching changes and frequently such a change can spark a renewed enthusiasm in both the fan base and within the locker room, and that renewed enthusiasm often can result in a spike in the team's record the following year. No doubt it is widely expected within the Tyee Club and the athletic department for exactly that to transpire. The disposition of the casual fan may be more telling in this situation, however, and if that measure is the decibel level directed toward Eugene, the 2005 Huskies – and perhaps the near-term future beyond the 2005 season – indicates that expectation is misplaced.

The reason for this skepticism on the part of the partisans is primarily a result of the recent lack of success the Huskies have had in recruiting top-flight athletes to the program. For all the hyperbole regarding Neuheisals' recruiting acumen, the overall quality of recruiting classes has diminished steadily since the Don James era. The occasional individual recruit since that time has enjoyed success – but the breadth of each class has fallen to the point in each new season the Huskies have been clearly deficient in one aspect or another.

This season that deficiency – as it was last year – is at quarterback. Though returning three quarterbacks with game experience – three quarterbacks who combined for only eight touchdowns while throwing 24 interceptions – and landing ex-Duck Johnny DuRocher as a transfer, the Huskies have yet to demonstrate there is sufficient leadership, athletic prowess and experience at this keystone position. With all appropriate disclaimers assumed though unspoken regarding spring practice and regular season performance – a spring game with a final score of 3-0 does nothing to indicate that deficiency has been addressed.

Running back is also an open question though incoming freshman J.R. Hasty could provide something of a spark.

The Huskies do have returning offensive threats at wide receiver, but sophomores Craig Chambers (19 receptions, 408 yards, 2 TD) and Corey Williams – who was sidelined most of last year with a broken wrist – will be in position to contribute only if whomever is the starting quarterback doesn't consistently make completions to the guys in the wrong colored jersey.

A repeat of last season's record is possible though the 2005 schedule is salted with three or four winnable games, the most prominent of which is the September 24th home match-up with Willingham's successor at Notre Dame, Charlie Weiss – another coach brought in following diminished performance in the face of legacy and expectations. The sheer emotion of that moment should be the difference for the Huskies. A home win versus Idaho is likely, leaving a home match-up with the Beavers and two road contests – at Air Force and at Arizona as the best remaining opportunities for victory.

For those opportunities to be realized, the defensive unit will have to lead the way, keeping the Huskies close enough for the offense to remain within striking distance. The Huskies won't score a lot of points – but they may not need to, the defense – particularly at linebacker and defensive line where senior DT Manase Hopoi, (54 tackles, 9 sacks, 22 tackles for loss) is the anchor. With his quickness, the Huskies may line him up at DE on occasion as well.

All three starting linebackers return. Evan Benjamin, (Senior, 105 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 10 tackles for loss), Joe Lobendahn (Senior, 100 tackles, 3 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss) and Scott White (Junior, 83 tackles, 5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss) provide solid run support for the defensive line, though there is very little experience behind these three.

Statistically the Huskies ranked high in pass defense last season, but that is not likely to be the case this fall. Inexperience at corner will have every opposing offensive coordinator stretching the field in an attempt to get the linebackers backpedaling and to open up a running game.

There are few constant truths in Pac-10 football, but one that does consistently seem to have merit is that the teams at the bottom of the standings are stronger than their records indicate. The degree to which that is true regarding the Huskies will be one of the more interesting facets of the upcoming football season. If they find a way to win five or more contests, Washington may find the road back to respectability not so difficult. Lacking that, they may well prove to be the exception to the "stronger than their record" parable and if that is what 2005 brings, it will be a long, long road ahead for the Pups. The thinking here is it will be more the latter than the former.

Till the next time…

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