Willingham talks priorities during bye week

Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham was not interested in talking about Oregon, the Ducks, or anything that had to do with the Huskies opponent two weeks from now. Apparently those questions will be relevent to him and his team next Monday. Instead, the Huskies have four priorities for their program going into a well-placed BYE week.

"I think it's a great time for it, and if it wasn't now I'd say the same thing," said Willingham. "You take what comes at you. It's here and what we have to do is learn how to use it. We've got some extra days, so let's get those guys that are banged up and bruised a little bit healthier. It's a great time for it to occur."

In order, Willingham laid out his program's priorities for the week: 1) Get healthy, 2) Get work done on an opponent, not necessarily Oregon; 3) Get some of the younger guys some chances to play the game of football, and 4) Go on the road and recruit. But most of Monday's press conference was spent on the Huskies' tough 21-17 loss to UCLA in Pasadena.

"There are definitely some positives, but the negatives outweigh the positives," said Willingham when asked if he was encouraged by his team's play. "We didn't get the win. But you don't ever want to minimize the good things. Hopefully our philosophy is such that we're always acknowledging the good things that we're doing. But I think the players are the same. I don't think they walk out of that stadium very happy with a loss. I would much prefer to be crying to our team and to you about how poorly we played but we won. That's what you want to do, you want to win.

"From my perspective I think we're doing some things right, but there are some things we need to improve on. We have to improve our play in the fourth quarter. That's an area that we have to tighten up. I think that's the bottom line - they made plays and we didn't make plays. But I think we're capable of making those plays."

Clearly, the one glaring area that was shored up in a big way from last year was the containment of Bruin running back Maurice Drew. Drew ran roughshod over Washington last year, rushing for 322 yards and 5 touchdowns - both UW records for an opponent. This year the Huskies took away 90 percent of Drew's ground production and 80 percent of his touchdowns. The one play where Drew was able to get free was on a punt return for touchdown - a play brought back because of a block in the back by teammate Rodney Van.

"We emphasized the same things we talk about every week," said Willingham when asked for the secret behind being able to bottle up UCLA's most explosive Bruin. "We have to be a better tackling team against a guy that can really run. That won't change this week, even though we don't have an opponent. And we have to keep talking about execution, knowing where to be, where your help is and all of those things."

Conversely, Washington was able to get their running game on track. Kenny James scampered for six against the Bruins, but it was the play of Louis Rankin that caught Willingham's eye. "I think he's gotten better," he said when asked about Rankin's 109-yard effort at UCLA. "I think there are some things that he's added. But the ability to be patient - when he's in that zone he does very, very well. And I was really pleased with the play that he had this weekend."

But for the over 400-yards generated by Washington's offense, they have to get more than 17 points for their work. Part of that problem stems from poor management of clock and downs, signified by a 'clocking' of the ball by UW quarterback Isaiah Stanback on third down, forcing a 56-yard field goal effort by Evan Knudson that came up short. Looking at the replay, Stanback appears to understood that he made the wrong decision, but Willingham won't let his junior signal-caller accept the blame.

"We wanted to do that, but not at that time," said Willingham of Stanback's decision. "That was my fault. If you go back to the sequence, we had a sack in there which meant we had to expend a timeout. That's a normal reaction for us if we have one so that we don't lose a lot of time getting everyone back. Then we wanted to see if we could get a couple of plays off without a timeout and then put yourself in a position to 'clock' it. That was just my fault in our communication. We did what we wanted to do, just not at the times we wanted to do them."

While that gaffe (and a Corey Williams drop of a Stanback bullet on the numbers) cost the Huskies a chance to tack on more points at the end of the first half, Willingham was much more keen on talking about another play that underscores why he feels Stanback is the right man for the job at quarterback. Ironically enough, it had nothing to do with a play in which Stanback made a great pass or run, it was a play in which he tried to make a block and failed. So what was so remarkable about the play?

It was made nearly 60 yards downfield.

"It was as fine an effort of any player," said Willingham on Stanback's attempted block during a third-quarter run by Rankin that ended up totalling 49 yards. "You saw him run by three-quarters of both teams to get down there. That speaks to what kind of competitor he is. Those are the guys you want to have on your team - guys that are willing to compete and throw their body around and hustle. To me, that's a player.

"When you start to measure your team's commitment and attitude about playing the game...when you see those kinds of efforts, I think it speaks well for the direction of what we're trying to do."

Also something that speaks highly of Willingham's work in changing mindsets is the switch of Shelton Sampson from running back to cornerback. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior from Lakewood, Washington, moved this past week in an effort to shore up a position racked by injuries and the losses of incoming players Chris Handy and Qwenton Freeman to grades. Former fullback Durrell Moss moved a couple of weeks earlier and actually saw some action against Notre Dame.

"For one, you want fast players and you also want tough players, as defensive backs tend to attack more," said Willingham. "And you are also looking at the individual's desire. I'm excited about the move and I think it also speaks to his commitment to the team. It was a move that was necessitated just by our injury situation and what's happened this year. I hope the move works out for him and for our football team."

By moving players like Moss and Sampson into potentially bigger roles in the Huskies' secondary, Willingham is hoping that there won't be a fourth-quarter meltdown like what happened at the Rose Bowl. "You always like to have your best players on the field, that's why they won the job in the first place," he said when asked about the amount of rotation that was used to spell starters that were nursing injuries. "Hopefully they can do it better than the next guy. But what you expect that, even if you are thin, the next guy has to step in there and get it done. He is trained, he is conditioned and has worked to get it done during that stretch of time. I don't think I can attribute all of our malfunctions or all of our failures to the fact that we're thin. Can it and does it make a difference in some cases? Yes it does."

And even though the team gets a little bit of a respite this weekend, they finish the rest of the month with three more ranked opponents. Oregon is currently ranked 25th, USC 1st and Arizona State 17th. Six out of their first eight opponents in 2005 will have been ranked at the time the Huskies play them. Not exactly a tonic for a team looking for something positive, but Willingham is not deterred.

"Our group has had to rise to the challenge each week," he said. "I think they continue to be inspired."

TV Time?: The Oregon game had not been picked up by the time Monday's press conference rolled around, but now Fox is listing the game for a 3 PM PST game time on their website. The time, if it is to be picked up by television, would be officially determined no later than the end of the day Tuesday.

Injury Report: Willingham noted he was under the impression that all the players that came out of the UCLA game at one point or another for various nicks and bruises (Dashon Goldson and Manase Hopoi, for example) came back at some point during that game to play. So he was not anticipating any player loss due to injury for the Oregon game. In addition, he was hopeful that offensive linemen Joe Toledo and Chad Macklin would be available against the Ducks. "We hopefully anticipate their return next week," he said. Toledo has been out since sustaining an ankle injury against Air Force, and Macklin has been out since the Idaho game.

Redshirting the 2005 Class: Outside of Darrion Jones and Chris Stevens, who have already seen action, Willingham said that running back J.R. Hasty is the only true frosh 'still on the fence' when it comes to redshirting or not. "I'm still wrestling with the decision on whether to activate him or not," he said.

Wood at PR?: Willingham said that the play of Marlon Wood at punt returner against the Bruins could be enough for him to earn the starting nod. "It could be, we'll look and see," said Willingham. "Anthony (Russo), up to that point, had been doing fairly well. He had the one drop and he had been hobbling just a little bit, so we felt it was time to get Marlon Wood in there. The couple that he did have, he stepped up and did those very well."

TW on Instant Replay: Instant replay has been in full-effect in the Pac-10 and there have been a number of close, and even controversial calls that have been made in an attempt to make the 'right call'. "You still involve the same human factor, and that's never going to leave until you get a machine that does it all," said Willingham when asked for his opinion on whether or not instant replay has been a success so far. "But for the most part I think it's working fairly well."

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