FS: a watershed game for Stanback and UW

This past Tuesday I sat in the UW media room for an hour and a half, waiting for Husky freshman quarterback Jake Locker to arrive. With time on my hands, I reflected back to last weekend's Oklahoma game, and the fate that lurks on the horizon for current starting quarterback Isaiah Stanback.

This past Saturday was supposed to be the breakout game for a senior quarterback who has endured much in his five years at Washington. Everyone associated with Husky football has been hopeful of that magical "click" that sometimes comes with four years of experience under the belt. The persistent hope has been that Stanback's grasp on the quarterback position needed time to ripen and catch up with his superlative speed and athleticism. In the season-opening win over San Jose State, Stanback did some good things that drew praise and hope.

But the game against Oklahoma brought forth an alarming return of Stanback's past mistakes and defeatist body language. There he was in the first half, rolling out toward his left near the goal line. Before him was a blocker ready to help him navigate a path to pay dirt. But with seeming tunnel-vision, Stanback instead forced a throw toward his tightly-covered tight end. And the ball was knocked down for an incomplete pass.

Later in the second half, following a Husky fumble recovery, there was Stanback breaking huddle and approaching the line of scrimmage - with the end zone a mere five tantalizing yards away. A touchdown would make it a three-point game. An option play had been called by offensive coordinator Tim Lappano, and as Stanback leaned in over center he saw that the Sooners were bunching ten defenders at the line of scrimmage. Whether the coaches had restrained Stanback from checking off isn't clear. But for whatever combination of reasons, Stanback did not alter the play. He took the snap, veered to his right, and was quickly engulfed. While attempting to extract himself from the swarm of defenders, the ball slipped from his hands and bounced on the turf. The Sooners recovered. At that moment, the game was lost.

Those two plays were symbolic of Stanback's struggle in general. And in the aftermath of the 37-20 defeat, he sat hunched forward upon a folding chair in a dimly lit room within Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium. The reporters could barely hear his whispered answers to their questions. He was taking on the same defeated body language that he had demonstrated after losses during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

"It's so hard," said Stanback on Monday to the Seattle-PI. "It's tough. I'm trying to be around my guys and be normal, but it just feels fake. I talk lower. My demeanor is different. I've got (Monday night) to get over this. Tuesday comes around and I've got to go out and lead… I didn't play well. I second-guessed myself too much. I was thinking way too much."

As William James wrote over a hundred years ago in a book called The Principles of Psychology, humans are not educated by merely taking in information from their life experiences; rather, it's how they recombine the raw data of their experiences that produces wisdom and adaptability. Somehow, in his fifth year at Washington, it just hasn't clicked with Stanback, in regards to the quarterback position. He is as nice a person as you will ever meet, so it is difficult to see him struggle and feel so discouraged.

But whatever the reason for Stanback's travails, not much time remains for him to right the listing ship. Gone are the days when Husky Stadium filled up with 70,000 fans per game. An alarming and precipitous drop in season ticket-holders now has attendance flirting with the sub-40,000 mark. Lots of people have lost interest in Husky football, while public fascination with the Seattle Seahawks surges forth at an all-time high. Another miserable season for Washington will further render Husky football a footnote on the Seattle sports pages.

The next two games against Fresno State and UCLA are as critical as any in recent years. Two impressive victories would give the Huskies a 3-1 record and restore a heartbeat of faith and excitement back in the program. The prospect of a bowl game would provide Head Coach Tyrone Willingham with momentum toward a quality recruiting class, and Stanback would have a chance at leaving Washington with a positive legacy.

But two more sub-par Stanback performances leading to losses would leave Washington with a 1-3 record—and a disastrous road ahead. Faced with the likelihood of a 2-10 or 3-9 campaign, attendance would plummet further — perhaps toward the low 30,000 range. Grumblings about Willingham would increase in volume, and desperate times would call for desperate measures. In such a case, in the same manner that last year's Arizona team burned the redshirt of freshman QB sensation Willie Tuitama, so too would Willingham likely burn the redshirt of his freshman phenom Jake Locker.

And speaking of Locker, he never did show up for our Tuesday interview. I was told that Locker also didn't show up for a TV interview the day before. By all indications, this runs contrary to Locker's typical manner. My speculation is that Coach Willingham quietly told Locker not to engage in any interviews this week, to ensure that no flames are fanned regarding a quarterback controversy. It's a smart move by Willingham-- though truth be told, I was only going to ask Locker what thoughts were swimming through his head while standing on the sideline at Oklahoma last Saturday - as well as what he envisions about quarterbacking the Huskies in 2008 when the Sooners travel to Seattle.

Meanwhile, if Isaiah Stanback has the ability to rise above the current challenge, that aspect of his psyche must surface now. The sands continue to pour through the hourglass of his college career — and it might be later than he realizes.
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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