Knocking 'em down, one by one

SEATTLE - Tyrone Willingham knew the gauntlet the Washington Huskies would have to face early on this season. Saturday marked the first game of a four-game swing where each opponent has the potential of being ranked in the top-20. Well, as of Saturday evening, it's Washington 1, Goliath 0.

"First it's great to get the win playing against a very good football team," Willingham said after the Huskies defeated No. 20 Boise State, 24-10. "We withstood their charge in the second half. The defense did a wonderful job. It was really a tale of two halves. The offense was strong in the first half, and then the defense picked up the pace in the second half and do one heckuva job of finding ways to take the ball and shut them down. It's a great win and our team is very excited."

It was indeed a tale of two halves. The Huskies, winning the toss and taking the ball, drove 78 yards and scored right away - on a Jake Locker 6-yard run - to give the Hometown 11 a lead they would never relinquish. Quintin Daniels scored on a 16-yard pass from halfback Louis Rankin, Ryan Perkins kicked his first-career field goal - from 34 yards - and then Marcel Reece bounced off a couple of BSU defenders and galloped 58 yards for the Huskies' final score.

After Boise State's Kyle Brotzman kicked a 21-yard field goal with 1:21 left in the first half, who would have reasonably imagined there would be no more scoring from either team?

Willingham admitted he was fooled. "When you play a good football team, they make plays and we also shot ourselves in the feet on a couple of occasions, and you can't do that," he said. "We were fortunate that our defense made some plays for us. When you hold a team of that caliber to 10 points and no points in the second half, you did some good things. Our young men played with heart and passion and I think that made a difference."

Ah, that defense. It was a defense that seemed to have the mindset of a Weeble or a Timex wrist-watch. They would give up plays, but once the Broncos saw red (zone), they became the '85 Chicago Bears. Bodies were flying around, pressure was being put on BSU quarterback Taylor Tharp, and a young and maligned secondary stepped up and made plays.

Roy Lewis and Vonzell McDowell each came up with an interception in the second-half to preserve a lead that never felt like it was a comfortable one. "We were able to do a good job against their run, and it put them in situations where we could go with a three-man rush and play maximum coverage," Willingham said.

It's true. Heisman candidate Ian Johnson had his consecutive games streak of rushing for over 100 yards stopped at seven. Every time the Broncos tried to establish the run, the Washington front seven shut him down to minimal effectiveness. It really made a big difference in BSU's offensive play-calling.

"In the second half, we tried to play catch up, which takes us out of the rhythm in terms of the running game," Boise State Head Coach Chris Petersen said. "Also, Washington's got a good run defense, and played a little bit softer so we were trying to be patient. I think if we could've scored when we got the ball down there we would've been in good shape. We were down there two or three times and we didn't get anything out of it."

And when Tharp tried to take a little more than what was there - the Huskies' secondary pounced. Four turnovers were the result, and arguably the difference in the game. "We definitely had our chance," Tharp said afterward. The defense came out and played really well in the second half - but credit Washington and their defense. We came out and got some drives started, we just couldn't finish."

Willingham liked the fact that his players were playing with actual hands. "Catching balls with nubs isn't nice," he said.

Even cornerbacks like McDowell - a true freshman from Rainier Beach - made plays that just hadn't been seen in years' past. "We know at some point he's going to be a good player, but he knows that every week he's going to be fire-tested," Willingham said of McDowell. "Until he makes a series of plays, teams aren't going to back away. But for him to step up and make a play was crucial for his confidence and also for the team because the team needed to see him step up and make a play."

And so it was the Syracuse game put on it's head. It was the defense coming to Jake Locker's rescue instead of the other way around. It was the defense that took all the pressure off their young signal-caller and put it squarely on their shoulders. And considering a Washington team hadn't beat a ranked opponent since 2003, their ability to hang on and make plays instead of wilting is nothing short of impressive.

"It (Top-20 win) hadn't been done in a while, and you want to be in the habit of doing that," Willingham said. "If you aren't comfortable doing that, you might find ways to give it up down the stretch, but I think our guys felt comfortable doing that. They stepped it up."

"We had a lot of chances, we just could not capitalize on them," Petersen said. "Too many turnovers, too many penalties. Every time we got something going, we had to bring it back. That's what happens when you play great teams like Washington. We had opportunities, but we had eight or nine penalties, and turned the ball over with three interceptions and a fumble."

Willingham praised Locker for his ability to 'bounce forward' after making mistakes - including his first career fumble and interception. "Anytime you have a young quarterback, there's not enough of a library there for him to respond to everything," Willingham said of Locker and his learning curve. "That's where experience comes in, and each week he'll get better.

"He has the mindset that we prefer of our defensive backs - short memory. Forget it and go forward. We talk about it all the time. It's the next play that counts. And Coach Lappano does a wonderful job of how he talks with Jake to keep him going forward. That's a real plus."

"Good player," Petersen said, simply. "Did just what we thought, he got a lot of yardage on his feet. Those are hard quarterbacks to deal with."

So in the final analysis? "It's a mixed bag, and we need to get better in all areas," Willingham said, matter-of-factly. "One thing that's been disappointing is that we haven't had a big return yet. I'm looking forward to the day when we can add that to our arsenal."

But for now, he'll take a win over a top-20 team - his first at UW - as well as playing Jim Lambright to this era's version of the 'Whammy in Miami'. Granted, it's not a 58-game home win streak that was snapped, but with the program the way that it is right now, it sure feels like it's that big.

"We're still growing and there's some potential with this football team," he said. "If we believe today is the be-all and end-all, then we've made a very serious mistake."

No question - with No. 12 Ohio State the Huskies' next (willing?) victim-to-be, the Huskies need to produce more of the same. More Locker, more ball-control, more defense, more big plays and more consistency. And for the first time in a long time, it doesn't appear to be the blip on the horizon that has teased Husky fans from afar.

"It puts you in a better frame of mind going into the next game," he said after the win. "It's a great place to be, but we know we are going to be playing one of the top teams in the country. We know they are a good football team, and it's going to take a lot from us to get this one."

And Willingham is expecting the fans to step up their game as well. "I told them before the game that I needed six points from them today, and I think they lived up to their end. They did their job.

And starting tomorrow, we expect them to do better too." Top Stories