Willingham nonplussed with win?

SYRACUSE, NY - Not that we were expecting sirens and whistles and partying and the kind of exuberance matching that of a bowl win, but a smile or two would have been nice. Tyrone Willingham - even in victory - apparently wasn't in that kind of mood. He probably saved his grins for inside the locker room.

His Washington Huskies had just traveled cross-country to play their first game of the 2007 season in a dome in conditions they apparently couldn't simulate in Seattle. What appeared to be tough odds for the away team was turned upside-down, as Jake Locker parlayed his first career start into a running and throwing showcase not seen since the days of Marques Tuiasosopo.

The Huskies won, in convincing fashion. They had taken out the Syracuse Orange by the score of 42 to 12. But if you hadn't seen the game and only had Willingham's comments to go by, you might have come away not really knowing what had transpired.

"There were a lot of good things out there tonight, but it was the first game," Willingham shared Friday night. Absolutely there were a lot of good things. The Huskies went back-to-back in season-openers for the first time since the 2000-2001 seasons. The 42 offensive points were the most in an opener in seven years. The Huskies held a hapless Orange run game to negative rushing yards through three quarters.

But the star of the show was clearly Locker. After a couple of shaky series to start out, the redshirt frosh from Ferndale, Wash. took control, leading the Huskies to five-straight touchdown drives of 70-yards or more. He finished the day with 225 total yards of offense, and two rushing touchdowns. Syracuse had no answers for him, but it didn't take long for Willingham to find a couple of chinks in Locker's seemingly impenetrable armor.

"So so," Willingham said when asked to judge his quarterback's debut - his face never once changing expression. "I think he can do better. I think there were a couple of reads that I don't think he read right.

"Every quarterback makes mistakes. New quarterbacks usually make more than veterans. I knew he would settle down, I knew our team would settle down. We did some things that I would like to believe were uncharacteristic. We had some mistakes, some assignment things that we just didn't do very well. It was a slow start."

And his tailback - Louis Rankin? Rankin had just shredded the SU defense for a career-high 147 yards and three touchdowns. He had four runs of over 15 yards and three touchdowns on the night.

"I think Louis can do better."

I'm sure he can too. But...wow. Apparently Willingham isn't interested in following the age-old quarterbacking mantra of taking what the other team gives you. Clearly he's a lot more interested in putting that on the other team and just taking it to whoever is on the other side of the ball, both from a physical and athletic standpoint.

"Guys gave great effort tonight, and that's what we expect of our football team," he said. "All you can ask for is for them to give great effort, and if they do that we will always have a chance."

One of the real unknowns coming into Friday night's game was the play of the special teams. The Huskies would be breaking in two kickers seeing their first career D1 action (Jared Ballman and Ryan Perkins), as well as a true frosh kick returner in Brandon Johnson.

"I said before that I thought our kicking game would be solid, and I thought it was solid," Willingham said. His words were prophetic; Ballman consistenly kicked the ball right by the end zone on kickoffs, even though the ball has been moved back to the 30-yard line by new NCAA rule. He also averaged over 46 yards per punt on four kicks. Perkins only had to take care of points after touchdowns, but he was flawless.

Another one of the keys to the Huskies' victory was the play of two true freshmen on defense - Vonzell McDowell and Nate Williams. The two Seattle products - McDowell from Rainier Beach and Williams from Kennedy in Burien - were pressed into action because of lack of depth in the secondary, and both came up with big plays to keep the Orange from generating any offensive momentum.

"They did about what I expected them to do," Willingham said, making it seem as if McDowell and Williams were meant to come up big right from the get-go. "They came in and played football. Hopefully the film will look good, but it probably won't. There will be more that we need from them. We felt that the guys that were coming in making their first starts would be ready, able and capable of playing.

"We're not surprised by what they do."

And upon reflection, how could they be? These coaches know that the time to win is right now. They aren't afforded the luxury of patience, especially in a year that has the Huskies playing 13 games, with a schedule that some are calling the toughest in the country, playing in a league some are calling the toughest in America.

So Willingham has to think big right now and not be satisfied with anything - even if that thinking runs counter to what would be perceived as something just short of crazy.

So while the Washington coaches are shooting for the stars, it's the players that feel the heat. Take Williams, for instance. After breaking up a beautiful play in the UW end zone with a veteran move - a swipe with his hands to knock down a ball caught by a Syracuse receiver - he didn't get a high-five or slap on the butt or much more for his efforts.

"His coach (J.D. Williams) said he should have intercepted it," Willingham said.

Of course.

This type of talk hasn't been around Montlake for quite a few years, so it comes as a bit of a warm breeze during a rather cold spell. So the question is, do the players have what it takes to achieve the standards that the UW coaches have set for them? Winning by 30 on the road in a dome registered something slightly more than a yawn, if you saw Willingham's post-game 'interview' with ESPN's Rob Stone.

So what's it going to take for Willingham to do the Lambada on the 'W' in Husky Stadium? Probably 13-0. And even then, he might just bag out and give us the Twist instead.

But what a sight it would be.
Notes:
Injury report: Luke Kravitz is the only player Willingham mentioned as not being able to finish the game.

Ossai and Habben: The biggest battle on the offensive line this fall was between Cody Habben and 2006 starter Ben Ossai for the starting left tackle spot. In the end, Ossai started against the Orange, but Habben also saw his first career action, and played extensively. "There was a competition and both did well coming into the season," Willingham said. "We said it was going to be a game-time decision, and that's what it was. We knew that both had earned the right, and deserved the right to play."


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