Dawgman.com Diary - 11/9

Like the fault located underneath Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, personality rifts among those on the 2003 Washington football team created fractures exacerbated by the heat brought on by losing. If the Nevada and Arizona games showed the team's fissures hiding just below the surface, the Cal game turned that season into a psychological earthquake approaching 8 on the Richter Scale.

"We're just going to go out and get up for this game, especially knowing what happened last year," Sam Cunningham said. "You learn from history. We are going to prepare hard all week and put on a strong game. We take pride in going out there and competing every Saturday. That's what being a competitor is all about - wanting to go out and do your best regardless of what's going on. We can't just lay down, we have to keep it going."

Junior linebacker Evan Benjamin echoed Cunningham's thoughts. "Most of the guys on the team are playing for everybody else and for the coaches too," he said. "We have a couple more weeks and we have nothing more to lose. We have a situation this past weekend where it looked like we just came out of camp. It was hard last week, but nobody is feeling sorry for us and we have to go out there and play."

"You have to come out on every Saturday and play hard because there's so much tradition here and so much has gone on in this stadium and because of the players that have played here before," added junior tight end Joe Toledo. "And it doesn't matter what our record is."

The 23-13 loss to Arizona Saturday just added more confusion and more finger-pointing from those on the outside looking in. There has to be someone to blame, someone to point the finger at. Keith Gilbertson is already gone at the end of the year, so most of the fans' pique has been shifted in his direction. Toledo has a unique perspective on Gilby, as the Huskies head coach also used to be his position coach.

"Coach Gilbertson is a great coach, a great guy and I've loved playing for him," he said. "He was my position coach for two years, and eighty percent of what I know about football I learned from him. So I have a great deal of respect for him and it weighs heavy on my mind that he's not going to be here next year. I appreciate everything he's done for me, but at the same time, we are Division-I athletes and we have to go out and perform at a higher level than we are right now.

"There are a lot of guys saying that they are giving their best effort, but sometimes your best effort isn't good enough and you have to get better and step up. You have to realize that you can play better than you are. It's frustrating, man.

" The coaches keep preaching to us that you have to play every play like it's your last play and that every play is the most important play of the game, because you never know what might happen. And at times, there are people that are taking plays off and sometimes not doing what they are supposed to do. They look back and think that they messed up a little, but when you look at the film it ends up being one of the more crucial plays of the game. And you can't go back and take that play back."

"It's one of those things that, when I was graduating from high school knowing I was coming to the University of Washington, I would have never believed this would happen. It's like living through a nightmare."

Toledo's 'nightmare' has been softened a bit by his surprising return to form. Surprising only in the sense that he's actually playing better as the year has gone on, an anomaly in a season for the Dawgs where there have been season-ending surgeries reaching double-digits. And it's even more impressive that Joe has continued to get stronger, as injuries have plagued him ever since his second practice as a frosh.

"I had a good summer at home working out," he said, trying to make sense of his impressive return. He was the leading pass-catcher for the Huskies against the Wildcats, with 6 receptions for 62 yards. "Things were still kind of lingering and I hadn't had a lot of full-contact work. I just started hitting again and doing more things that were football-related, I think that helped a lot.

"It's been a nice surprise, definitely, especially considering last year and only playing two or three games and not knowing what might happen with the rest of my career. At the same time, I had hoped for a little better record and our team would be better."

Cunningham chimes in with his own take on Gilbertson leaving at the end of the season. "When I was recruited by the Huskies, they told me about the tradition and pride here," he said. "We are always playing for pride. I know I do. When we put on that helmet, we're playing for that W. It's unfortunate that Coach Gilbertson is stepping down. He's a good coach, a prestigious coach. I had heard about him before I even came here. He's won Rose Bowls. It's unfortunate that he has to leave, it's where he's always wanted to be."

One of the things that makes this current losing trend even tougher for most of the players on the team is that they just have never experienced losing to this degree, perhaps not losing much at all. Toledo's La Costa Canyon high school team went from losing his junior year to winning his senior season.

But Joe is in the minority, as both Cunningham and Benjamin are learning about losing as they go. "This is the first time I've ever experienced anything like this, and it's an experience I'm willing to learn from now," Cunningham said. "I've never been in a situation like this, so I don't really know how to follow-through on it. Everybody has their up days and we're having our down days now. You have to learn how to cope."

"My sophomore year (at Redmond), we only lost one game. We lost in the semifinals," said Benjamin. "It's tough, and it's definitely something that I'm going to forget but I'm also going to learn from it. It's something everybody should go through just to see about themselves a little bit. There's no way around it, we are going through it right now. And I don't want to go through this again, but we can take this into the off-season and use it as motivation. It's something we'll use and I know a lot of guys are thinking that way too."

So what is Cunningham going to take from this adversity? "The biggest lesson for me is to never take anything for granted - any practice or anything," he said. "You've got to take everything step-by-step, you have to do all the things to prepare yourself to win and take nothing for granted."

"We were 3-7 one year and had 4 guys go Division-1 that year," said Toledo, recounting his glory days at LCCHS. "That was my junior year. We went 7-4 my senior year, so we can turn it around. We just have to go out there and play for each other, and it doesn't matter what the circumstances are. Looking back at some of the most successful teams here, they usually don't have the most dominant athletes, but they come together and work hard as a group and get things done as a group and that's what we have to do."

But wasn't that supposed to be the difference between this year and last? The thought about last year was, everybody was looking to Cody Pickett and Reggie Williams to bail the team out, and that didn't happen. The closer-knit 2004 Huskies were supposed to be lighter on top when it came to name-recognition, but heavier where it was supposed to count (cohesion, team play, etc...)

"Whoever thought that, I guess it backfired," said Toledo. "We've had games within our grasp that we could have won. I don't know if it's just turnovers or lack of consistent play, but I do know that we are a closer-knit group than last year. The younger guys can talk to the older guys. We just haven't been able to put it together on the field. We come out and work hard in practice and our coaches aren't the kind of guys that are going to let us slack in practice."

The majority of the Huskies' woes have to start with their anemic offense, an offense that is dead-last in the country when it comes to scoring. But the truly scary statistics are the ones that involve UW's ability to cough up the rock and their inability to score when they get it back.

Washington's 34 total turnovers lost is tops in the country right now, and five clear of Rutgers. Opposing teams have been able to score 85 points off those turnovers, with 28 of those points coming in their opener against Fresno State and 14 more points allowed off miscues this past weekend.

And what have the Huskies done with the 19 turnovers (top-35 in the country) caused by their defense? 22 points. That's two touchdowns and three field goals (minus an extra point) created off turnovers in nine games, with the ten points scored against UCLA being their biggest output of the season.

"It is a little bit frustrating, but we know what they can do," said Benjamin. "They just need to perform when the game is on the line. And I know someone is going to step up and make some plays."

"Everybody has their part," adds Toledo. "The quarterback drops back to pass and he has to have faith that his linemen will block for him and his receivers will get to the routes they are supposed to get to and get open. You can't point it on one player or one position. It's everybody collectively and it only takes one person not doing their job at a certain time to mess it all up."

And the players hear the rumblings, not only of fan discontent. With Gilbertson's fate sealed, they know that the coach they will be facing this Saturday - Jeff Tedford - is a name they will be hearing a lot during the off-season. The Cal head man appears to be right at the top of the list of coaching candidates.

Benjamin said the team is ignoring the talk - for now. "We've got two more weeks left with our team and our coaching staff and I think everyone is excited to play with each other and play for each other," he said. "We're not really worried about that, because we really need a win this week."

And besides, Benjamin wants to make sure the team can send the seniors out the way they able to last season, despite all the problems. "Last year we lost to Arizona and Cal at the end of the year and then beat Washington State to send our seniors out," he said. "It's been a struggle for everybody, but we want to get a couple of wins right here to send them out right."

"Coming out of that tunnel for the last time, it'll be different," adds Cunningham, the lone senior available to talk to reporters. "It's been quite an experience, you can believe that. It's going to be live. I know it's my last game here, but I have to prepare the same way I do for every game."

And with that, Cunningham got up out of his chair and took off for the door, albeit with a little limp. "I'm fine," he said. "It's nothing ice can't take care of," he added with a little laugh.

Ah yes...the days where the only thing you had to worry about as a UW football player was ice. Unfortunately, when you are 30-point dawgs in your own house, those days feel decades away.

And the fault lines keep moving...

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