Growing Pains

Once upon a time, when coach John Heisman was addressing his running backs, he uttered these immortal words: "Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

During practices this week, Rick Neuheisel needs to hook up with the guy who runs the Jumbo Tron and have this sentiment featured there. In giant, boldfaced letters for all to see! It should be chanted as a mantra. It should be meditated upon ad naseum. By next Saturday, this message should be ingrained within the hearts, minds, souls and very DNA of every UW skill player.

I am not just pointing to Rich Alexis. We all saw the half-dozen drops by wide receivers. We all saw Cody cough it up in a costly way. This type of sloppiness has reared its head two weeks in a row, and so is clearly not an anomaly.

There were many positives evident from Saturday's game against Wyoming. The Huskies did move the ball at will. The defense played a very fine game. Whenever you hold an opponent to seven points and record eight quarterback sacks, you're doing something right. Whenever you beat an opponent by 31 points, you are executing many things correctly.

What we have seen through three games is a thoroughbred who has just been born. It is walking around gingerly and staggering a bit. But the time will come when it is to be in full gallop. For this Washington team to gallop, there are three areas of concern to overcome. Some concerns that point to foreseeable problems. These are the three main things that can keep this team from reaching double-digits in the win column this season.

Concern #1: A game played in driving rain and/or gusty winds

It is such an interesting characteristic of this offensive line, which is so very good at pass blocking, but struggles with push off the ball for running plays. The Wyoming Cowboys' D-line is not the caliber of any Pac-10 school. Many of those rushing yards gained by Alexis were, well, gained by Alexis. No, I'm not being possessed by Yogi Berra, but what I am saying is that our O-line didn't create a lot of space on running plays. Alexis had to hit those creases hard, then churn those powerful legs in order to gain those 4.1 yards per carry.

It has been argued by several people, if we can throw effectively to move the ball, then why feel chained to idea that we need to run? The answer to this is simple: If there comes a time when Mother Nature is angry, and blustery winds and driving rain are wreaking havoc with Cody's attempts to throw downfield, then what? What if Washington is playing a great caliber of defense? What if the opponent has formidable defensive backs? Do the Huskies have what it takes in the trenches to get the needed push and be able to move the ball on the ground?

Some semblance of a running game would do wonders to compete in conditions such as these.

As it stands right now, lack of a push up front will cost us at least one game. If you figure that one first down against Michigan at the end of the game would've ran the clock out . . . well, let's just move on.

Concern #2: Confidence and killer instinct on offense

The voluminous mountain of yardage gained by the offense was impressive, to be sure. But all five fumbles on Saturday night came as the offense was driving the ball. To move the pigskin so impressively but coughed it up while approaching pay dirt is symptomatic of a team that is immensely talented and knows how to execute, but doesn't fully feel and comprehend the killer instinct of not being denied.

"Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble (or drop) this football."

So said Heisman. The offense has to know that there is nothing the defense can do to stop them.

A few weeks ago, Lou Piniella was lamenting something in a similar vein. He said that his Mariner hitters needed to know that when they are at-bat with runners on base and nobody out, the pitcher is the one in trouble. Not the hitter. Well, when the Huskies are in the red zone, the defense is the one on the ropes. Take it to them and knock them out! Stomp on them on the way to the end zone. Leave them grasping for air with a beautiful juke at the five-yard line, then haul in that catch. Feel drawn to that end zone like a powerful magnet. Feel superior to those defenders.

In a sense, the Washington offense right now is like Jennifer Lopez as an impressionable teenager. She is dressed in frumpy old sweats and without her hair combed. She knows that she isn't ugly. She sees some indications that she could be very pretty. But she doesn't yet truly grasp at how spectacular she can be.

Well, she grew up, didn't she? I'd say an emphatic YES is in order.

Despite what anybody says, the echoes of the Miami game still haunt this Husky team. That humiliation left a searing imprint. Deep down, they know that they're good, but collectively may not yet feel that they belong in college football's top five. The talent is there, and now it's time to mature into what can be.

Concern #3: The ability to apply pressure with defensive line

Overall the performance of the defense has been good. It is very difficult to compare the Wyoming and San Jose games with the Michigan game, because the defense's schemes and talent level were vastly different.

However, when it came time that everyone knew Wyoming was going to throw the ball, Bramlet had time to throw. On the scoring drive, the Wyoming QB had all day to sit and find receivers. He was only under an avalanche of pressure when the Huskies blitzed and stunted.

Simply put, it is concerning that the Huskies couldn't get enough pressure from just their front four in those situations. Will that cost down the line? In the pass-happy Pac-10, it could, unless it is addressed.

It was as beautiful a night at Husky Stadium as I can ever recall. There was a nice energy in the stadium, and it felt like the fans really enjoyed themselves. This is a fun, athletic team to watch. The Pac-10 schedule looms in the offing, and the competition provided by this league could lead to one of the most competitive and balanced seasons in memory.

Whatever happens with these Huskies, it will be fun to watch.
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories