Dawg Blog - Air Force

Esteemed Dawgman editor Chris Fetters and I arrived at the stadium on a blustery day in SoDo about three hours before kickoff. Ushers were prepping the Qwest Field seats and there was a tractor on the field raking the turf. Behind the tractor were several members of the grounds-keeping crew using dustpans and brooms to pick up various bits of rubber that got kicked up.

At 10:15 Husky head coach Tyrone Willingham sauntered out of the tunnel by himself and walked up and down the field, appearing to take in the atmosphere of football in Seattle, albeit not at Husky Stadium.

As the players made their way to the field, it became evident that they were hyped and ready for what lay before them – the Air Force Falcon football team.

DT Dan Milsten was player who was not in pads when the players were working out and he informed me that he "tweaked" his ankle during practice last week and would not be available for the game. He said he should be able to work out during this coming week and expects to play when the Huskies host the Cal next week. Milsten looks fit, weighing in at a sturdy 280 pounds according to the junior from Puyallup.

At 12:20 the national anthem was sung by the Air Force choral group and a flyby by four Eagle F-15 Air Force fighters shook the stadium and thrilled the crowd already in the stadium. Following that flyby, five parachutists entered the stadium through the opening over the field, the last flying "Old Glory" behind him as he landed near mid-field.

The opening quarter seemed to establish a theme that many Husky fans have been clamoring for – run the ball. Yes Husky fans, the power running game appears to be in the offing this season. Sophomore RB Louis Rankin had more yardage in the first ten minutes of the game (49) than he had all of last season (35).

After K Evan Knudsen hit a 40-yarder, that incidentally looked better than any kick I've seen him hit in the previous two seasons, the Husky defense stiffened again and then Husky fans saw what they had longed to see from newly named starting QB Isaiah Stanback, good decision-making skills and accurate throws. He hit Corey Williams on a beautiful pass down the right hash-mark between two defenders. What made it more impressive was the fact that Stanback had plenty of time to pass, something that wasn't as prevalent in 2004, and his receiver ran the route that the play called for.

Belying his conservative persona, Willingham decided to go for it on fourth and two from the Falcons' 19-yardline. Stanback hit WR Anthony Russo in the flat, but came up inches short on what appeared to be a good spot.

Junior FS Dashon Goldson appears to be everything the coaches said he was during fall camp. He laid the wood to the Falcons' second string QB Adam Fitch on an option keeper. However a mistake by the junior FS, the team's last line of defense, allowed Air Force to complete an 84-yard touchdown pass that brought the Falcons within four points.

"I saw the opportunity to get the ball back for our offense, and I went to strip the ball," Goldson lamented. "I should have made the sure tackle, because he was in the open field. That was a mistake."

Washington's –19 turnover ratio in 2004 led to most of the losses last season, however this wasn't the case today as the Dawgs forced two fumbles and didn't have any of their own. Of note is the fact that Willingham has never had a negative turnover ratio in his 10 seasons as a head coach.

Rankin appears quick to the hole and has the speed to get outside an make plays. He appears to be making the case to the coaching staff that whether incumbent Kenny James is healthy or not, Rankin wants to keep his spot as the starter lined up in the backfield.

"I thought he had a couple second effort runs and finished some runs good," offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said. "I thought he broke a couple tackles which was good to see. We've always known he was a guy who could make people miss, but I thought he ran through a couple tackles that we need him to do. He ran through some arm tackles which was good to see."

An intriguing sub-plot in the first half was that converted corner Cody Ellis, one of the fastest Huskies on the roster, was playing wideout before 2004 playmaker Craig Chambers ever saw the field. Apparently Ellis is ahead of Chambers on the depth chart as well.

One area the team can ill-afford any injuries is in the secondary and on a reverse by the Falcons both Roy Lewis and CJ Wallace went down with injuries. Josh Okebor, a player the Huskies lost before the season started last year, replaced Lewis in the secondary and saw his first playing time for the Dawgs and seemed to struggle today.

All day the Husky defense seemed to have trouble getting lined up against the Air Force offense. Several times the defensive backs were located on the wrong side of the formation and had to be adjusted by either LB Scott White or LB Joe Lobendahn.

As time was winding down in the first half, the reverberations of the Oklahoma Sooner loss, at home, to TCU began to make their way through the press box. Some in the room equated that game to the 1985 upset by Oregon State at Husky Stadium.

After 30 minutes of play it became painfully obvious that the team lacks the offensive firepower to take it to someone and that the defense needs to be the playmaker of the team, at least early in the season.

After watching Rankin run with power, speed and excellent vision I don't see how the Husky coaching staff can keep him off the field. He is a game-breaker that has to be on the field for this team to win.

Even with the loss, Stanback really seems to be showing the moxie that fans were hoping to see when he was named the starter. He saw a safety coming, pointed it out to his running back, didn't panic and hit Anthony Russo with a bullet on the Husky sideline. He continues to show the poise instilled by Willingham and Lappano.

"I thought he played pretty well," Lappano said after the Huskies' 20-17 loss. "Number one he had a lot of poise and composure out there, he had a lot of presence ine pocket. Without seeing the film, it looked like he was making all the right decisions with the football. For his first contest in while, I thought he played pretty well."

The team appeared to be upset over the loss and WR Sonny Shackelford and Rankin both seemed to agree that they need to "want it more" than their opponents, in order for them to win.

As the sun started to set behind majestic Qwest Field, looking back on the day, this team executed better, played harder and didn't get discouraged even when their backs were against the wall. As Lappano told the media, "there are no moral victories in the loss," but in this observer's eyes this team showed more heart and desire today than they have in some time.

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