Seven wins needed to secure Stanback's legacy

Ninety minutes had passed following another dreadful loss from late in the 2004 season. For the moment, the Husky Stadium tunnel was empty. As I made my way up the corridor, I looked up and saw Casey Paus walking toward me. Both he and fellow quarterback Isaiah Stanback played terribly, and Paus had absorbed the majority of the crowd's wrath. It showed on his face.

Reflexively, I stuck out my hand, and he shook it. The look on Casey's face was like he had just come from a funeral. I told him, "I know things have been real tough, but just hang in there, man." He said "Thanks," then continued on.

A few minutes later, I was sitting alongside a distraught Isaiah Stanback. His shoulders were slumped and his eyes possessed a look of despair. He had just spent a half-hour answering questions from reporters during which I wondered if he was going to be able to maintain his composure. When we were alone for a moment, I told him the same thing that I told Paus, and Isaiah said thanks, but understandably didn't seem to hear me.

It was the bleakest period in Husky football history. It was a perfect storm of chaos and ultimately former Coach Keith Gilbertson lost the team. Week after week, the performance on the field was inept, which reflected itself in the team's 1-10 record. The players did not believe in themselves. There was very little concept of team, and there was every indication that things would be abysmal at Washington for the foreseeable years to come.

Flashing forward nearly two years later, there suddenly was Husky quarterback Isaiah Stanback walking toward the sideline, as the final seconds ticked off the clock. His relatively new coach, Tyrone Willingham, was failing to suppress a smile. Washington had just hung on to upset Fresno State. Stanback stopped and stood at the exact spot of the field that former Husky QB Billy Joe Hobert had once stood, in the closing moments of a victory from another era. Back then, the brash Hobert raised a clenched fist toward the crowd and roared like a lion. In contrast, Stanback quietly broke into a little hopping jig, with his face lit up like a Fourth-of-July fireworks display over Elliot Bay. It was a rare sight to see him happy on the football field. But the fortunes of Husky football had just shifted. And he had been the quarterback to lead the way, while under great duress.

A week later, Washington was up against UCLA in Husky Stadium. In the first half, the Huskies trailed 16-0, and the offense was so inept, it seemed like if Willingham had asked his players to tie their shoes, the success rate would have been 50/50.

But suddenly Husky receiver Quentin Daniels made a nifty catch and run up the sideline for 17 yards and a first down, and the offense came to life. Washington went on to outscore UCLA 29-3 the rest of the way, for a 29-19 win. Operating with success out of spread formations, Stanback burned the Bruins repeatedly with his nimble footwork and tough running style. Receiver Sonny Shackelford repeatedly made big-time receptions with a new-found aggressiveness. After the game, amid the beautiful twilight aura of Husky Stadium, Stanback again was a portrait of exaltation.

A week later, early in the game at Arizona, Stanback averted disaster when his horrendous throw was dropped by an Arizona linebacker (who had a clear path to the end zone.) Things continued to sputter offensively until the second quarter, when suddenly the Huskies erupted for three touchdowns in the span of nine minutes. By halftime, Stanback had thrown for 244 yards and two touchdowns. By the end of the game, the Husky defense had held the fort, and Washington headed home with a 21-10 road victory.

Suddenly, the Washington Huskies are 4-1. They are within shouting distance of the Top 25. They are an intriguing team to watch for the first time since the 2000 season. There is a spirit of resiliency and togetherness that hasn't been seen at Washington in years. Now, they need just two wins to become bowl eligible. They need three wins to secure Isaiah Stanback's legacy as the quarterback that helped bring Washington back from the abyss. In the same manner that California's Kyle Boller was the senior quarterback of the 2002 Bear team that went 7-5, following a 1-10 record the year before, so too can Stanback be regarded as such.

There are still pitfalls ahead. The most brutal part of the schedule lies in wait. And Stanback is still error-prone and will continue to drive Husky fans crazy with mental lapses. He reminds me of one of those old jack-in-the-box toys—where you crank the handle repeatedly without knowing when the toy will coming bursting forth. The mistakes with Stanback are like that. But so too, are the big plays. Something as innocuous as a three-step drop can quickly morph into a long, scrambling touchdown run with Isaiah Stanback. Of all the non-red-shirting players on this improving football team, Stanback is the only one capable of astounding feats of athleticism.

It's stupefying to look back to the lowly Washington Huskies of 2004, and reflect as to how much they've now improved. One only wishes that the good guys that have moved on, like Joe Lobendahn, Evan Benjamin and Casey Paus, could be sharing in this success.
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories