Bouncing Around the Pac-10 with Ed Cunningham

A week ago, ABC broadcaster Ed Cunningham covered the Texas-Missouri game before hopping a plane destined for Los Angeles. Upon landing, the former Husky hustled out to the Rose Bowl, to catch as much of the Washington-UCLA game as possible. Cunningham later chuckled at how the things went downhill for the Dawgs as soon as he entered the stadium.

"I didn't get to see the beginning of the game to see how they got the lead," he said. "When I walked into the stadium it was right as that 3rd quarter touchdown was being reviewed, overturned, and then we scored. From that moment forward, it just seemed to me that this team hasn't learned how to finish. I didn't think they were going to hold on and win. It's hard to define. I have been on teams in both the NFL and at Washington that didn't know how to finish a game. By finish I mean that extra attention to detail and that extra attention to giving effort. You can lip service it all you want, they all get together and hold out four fingers into the air for the fourth quarter, and that's swell. You can do all the symbolism you want. But until the team's psyche, the team's heart and soul know how to finish, it's not going to happen against a team like UCLA."

It was brought to Cunningham's attention the interesting stat that in eleven plays run within the red zone, the Huskies ran the ball ten times, and threw one screen pass. Surely this indicated that the Husky coaches didn't feel confident in Stanback throwing the ball downfield when closing in on the goal line.

"To be honest Derek, that means nothing to me," Cunningham said. "We all get wrapped up in numbers and stats. It's really difficult to make that judgment without seeing the whole game and seeing what the coaches saw. Red-zone stats are really overrated. The only red-zone stat that means anything is number of touchdowns scored. I mean, so what if you're scoring a lot within the red zone, if it's mostly field goals. Ask Ohio State about that from when they played Texas."

Cunningham noticed the team-wide improvement in the Husky program.

"It is obvious that there are little areas in which they have improved," he said. "They seemed to tackle better, aside from the bad angle taken by the safety on that long pass in the 4th quarter. And it seems like they're blocking a little better; they're picking up the blitz, and things of that nature. There are strides being made. I thought Louis Rankin looked phenomenal. I didn't realize he was that fast. He has good open-field moves and he has runaway speed. CJ Wallace the safety is a very physical player, very good at the line of scrimmage. I really like the progress Isaiah Stanback has made. To be honest, I didn't think he had that good of an arm, or as good a command of the offense. You see little things like that.

"But if you don't have two-deep on the defensive line, and eight offensive linemen who can play, and more than one playmaker at wide receiver, then it's going to be tough. I think what ultimately happens against a team as talented as UCLA, in a tough grueling game like that, it's just going to take time to get the depth back into the program, to win games like that."

Despite UCLA's undefeated status, the obvious powerhouse of the Pac-10 remains USC. Cunningham was asked if he thinks the Trojans can be beat.

"Oh yea, I think they can lose," he said. "They've got a lot of weaknesses in their defensive secondary. They've got some inexperience. The defensive line hasn't really proven that they've replaced two guys who are playing in the NFL now. They have weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball. But offensively there are many things they can do with such explosive players. The key is you can't allow them momentum-changing plays in the kicking game and with turnovers."

And can Notre Dame beat USC, in a huge match-up slated for October 15th?

"Absolutely, I think Notre Dame can beat them," he said. "Given two weeks to prepare, they can score. The key is they have to be flawless with the ball. And make USC earn everything. USC is going to score, but don't allow easy scores. Notre Dame has got two weeks to prepare with Charlie Weis, who has four Super Bowl rings. They will be able to score points against USC, but will it be enough? Turnovers and kicking game will determine that."

Did Cunningham see any of the ND-UW game?

"We were on the air at the same time," he said with a laugh. "As we were doing our game, I was keeping one eye on the Husky game. I was pleasantly surprised by how hard and well they played against Notre Dame."

Cunningham was asked about his thoughts on the Oregon Ducks.

"Like a lot of teams in the Pac-10 conference, they are known to have a beautiful offense but boy they can't play defense," he said. "I saw that Fresno State game. From seeing that it was obvious they were not going to be able to slow down USC. Defensively their secondary always seem a half-step behind most of the time. Fresno State moved the ball easily on them. But if USC doesn't stumble, then of the teams that are going to compete for the 2nd and 3rd slot, Oregon is right in there.

"The team I can't figure out is Washington State," he said (prior to the Cougars' loss to Stanford). "Coming into the season I had them as a dark horse. Last week's game against Oregon State really concerned me. They should be playing better than they are. I was shocked at how many points they gave up to Oregon State."

Cunningham was asked his thoughts of coaches Mike Stoops at Arizona and Dirk Koetter at Arizona State.

"I think Stoops is in a similar position to Tyrone Willingham at Washington," he said. "I mean in that, there just wasn't a lot of talent there. (former coach) Mackovic just ran off everyone of note in that program. And even though (previous coach) Dick Tomey had some great runs, I think things were starting to go south right before he left. Their program has had flashes from time to time, but they have never been a place with sustained excellence. It's tough to take a place like that and make it a top-shelf program.

"As for Dirk Koetter at Arizona State, I have a lot of ties to the Phoenix area," he said. "I played there with the Cardinals and have part of my family there. There's growing sentiment that there's a lot of flash, but they need to start finishing games. There are two games they could have won. Could they have beat USC? I don't know. But four turnovers in the second half… You're not going to win against a good team doing that. Against LSU, they should have won that game. But they don't, because of two blocked kicks. There's a growing sentiment that they look pretty when they're playing teams they should beat. But you need to step up and beat good teams to get to that next level. That being said, Koetter has done a nice job amassing talent there. I like to think the package is there, but I know that the fans are getting restless, wanting more important wins."

Cunningham was then asked a brilliant and insightful question: If Arizona State had beaten LSU and USC, would the Sun Devil faithful still be grumbling about its head coach?

"Well, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas," said Cunningham with a laugh. "Look at what Mack Brown has done at Texas. Until he beats Oklahoma, which will happen this weekend, the faithful don't care. Getting close in today's world of coaching just doesn't cut it. But they all make over 1$ million a year, so I don't feel sorry for them." (Texas subsequently beat Oklahoma 45-12).

"Head coaches today have been put into a position where there is a higher standard," said Cunningham. "Coaches make such a major difference. Don't kid yourself. Kids go to a school to play for a head coach. They don't go for the biology dept. and they don't go because there are pretty locker rooms. They go because they want to play for the head guy."

We pointed toward California's Jeff Tedford as an example as a coach that kids clamor to play for.

"Tedford has forced changes at Cal," said Cunningham. "He's absolutely held their hand to the fire. He said, `Listen, if you want to be an academic institution and not care about football, that's fine. You have every right to do that, but it's not going to be with me. If you'd like me to stick around, I need to see changes.'

"I've got to tell you," said Cunningham. "Every school I go to now, there's fifteen cranes around their athletic department building and football facilities. I guarantee that the amount of construction this year is approaching a billion dollars, if not half a billion at least. There's a part of me that thinks this is ridiculous. Do we need to be spending this much money?"

Then Cunningham paused and laughed. "Well, at Cal they did! That place hadn't been updated since 1918. But Tedford made it happen."

In conclusion, Cunningham was asked about former Husky head coach and offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson. It was earlier this year that Cunningham had mailed him a two-page hand-written letter. In it, he thanked Gilbertson for having been such a strong influence upon him. He also wished him well following his hip replacement surgery and traumatic departure from Washington. Did Cunningham hear back from Gilby?

"No, and it's my fault," said Cunningham. "I need to pick up the phone and call him. I would not be the person I am today without him. I spent some time with him both with the Huskies and later with the Seahawks. Three years together. I'm going to do it, no excuses. But it's on me. I am the one who owes him the phone call, not the other way around.

"But I heard his hip surgery went well," he said. "If you now Gilby at all, his term is that he's `grinding.' He always says that (Life) is never too good, never too bad. He's just grinding. He's fine."

Derek Johnson can be reached at midnightjazz@msn.com


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