Is this cyclical?

A startling excerpt to consider from a Seattle Times article some years back tickled my memory. The setting was the Washington Huskies' locker room in Pullman, as a post-game celebration was underway.

"…In the middle of the madness, a voice rang out. It belonged to co-captain Nigel Burton, the smallest Husky. You could barely see him, but you heard him. He screamed so loud, he almost cried.

"This is for everybody before us," Burton shouted, as he held the Apple Cup high over his head. "This is for Warren Moon on down. . . . For everybody who ever played here."

And the Huskies cheered again. All of the emotions poured out, and the hurt from the bitter disappointments were expunged after a 16-9 victory over Washington State that seemed to erase the missteps of the past three months.

All that mattered yesterday was their first November victory in two years on a cold and rainy afternoon at Martin Stadium that delivered the Apple Cup, guaranteed a berth in a bowl game and avoided ending a streak of 21 consecutive winning seasons.

"Whose house!?" he screamed.

"Dawg house!," the Washington players shouted."

"…I was nervous for you guys," former UW player Greg Lewis told Burton. "I think every Husky back home was watching. . . . We're proud of you guys."

Said Coach Jim Lambright "…I don't know if that was a return of Husky football, but it was more in line of what you would traditionally see with this team… We won't be able to do that until next year, but this was a start" (Little did he know, that he would be fired just a month later).

In its regular-season finale, Washington rediscovered itself. The Huskies had been committed to the pass this season and threw the ball 62 times three weeks ago against USC. Saturday, however, they were physical and nasty, elements missing for much of the season.

"The Cougars called us out in the papers this week and said we were soft, and we just wanted to show how soft we were," guard Chad Ward said. "The pass doesn't make you soft . . . but the run makes you a little bit more aggressive. You've got to move people instead of defend."

Two weeks ago, UW coaches realized the shortcoming of their spread offense. The coaches met with the offensive players and formulated a new scheme. Or, rather, an old scheme.

"We gained a lot of confidence in our running game last week, and that encouraged us for this game," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "I think we were the toughest team on the field today. "

- Seattle Times, November 22, 1998

Doesn't the above seem eerily familiar? It detailed the Washington locker room following that squeaker of a victory against the Cougars, which enabled Washington to have a 6-5 season. I remember at the time feeling happiness, yet also disappointment, stemming from the realization of just how low Washington had sunk. Here we were being so jubilant and buoyant, all from avoiding a losing season.

Once again, we seem to be in that same boat, don't we? Staring at the stark possibility of a losing campaign.

There is nothing wrong with losing sometimes, as long as you played with effort, competency, intensity and hopefully, some fun. But there is an empty void residing within the essence of this Washington team. Perhaps it is a combination of a lack of intensity, focus, confidence or experience? Are the coaches failing to reach the players? Coming out of the locker room to start the second half against Arizona, the entire Husky team trudged out of the tunnel and took their collective place upon the north sideline. Trailing behind them all was Coach Neuheisel. I watched him as he ambled along, a solitary figure, staring at the ground, deeply immersed in his thoughts. I cannot read minds, but if body language means anything, he looked like a man struggling to find a way to reach a team.

It's hard to put a finger exactly on what is the problem. I am not sure that Walt Whitman, Robert Frost or even Lee Corso could articulate it properly. There is no sense of cockiness, discipline, swagger, joie de vivre, mega-intensity or confidence conveyed in the body language of any of these Huskies, when this Husky team is on the field.

Simultaneously as I write this, we are watching the Notre Dame-Air Force game. The announcers just commented with appreciation and awe, of how even though Air Force players have less talent and size than Notre Dame, they play every down like it is their last. Hitting with a focused intensity, purpose and confidence. Going into tonight, they are 6-0 and ranked #15. Comparably, that streak of nastiness and oomph is not with this UW team right now. And we are deep enough into the season to see that this attitude is not going to somehow magically surface.

Do these players and coaches truly realize what it means to be a Husky? Or has the death of Curtis Williams maintained a psychologically crippling effect upon the entire team? Has it sapped Washington of a ‘devil-may-care ferocity,' replacing it instead with a purveying sentiment of cautiousness?

It is very painful to see USC putting the hurt to Washington like this. On Saturday, I felt like we could have been much more aggressive defensively than we were. (In the precious few times that Palmer was under pressure, he made horrible throws!) And I have written, ad nauseum it seems, about what ails us with the running game and secondary.

I don't know if this current situation is cyclical, and that things will even out as these younger players gain experience. After all, it was just in 1999 that everyone thought the Pac-10 was weakened and washed-up. Nobody thinks that now. But if it were 1999 right now, we would all attribute these Husky shortcomings to probation. But we can't do that anymore. Yet, Washington is relying on freshmen to cover the best skill position players that the west coast has to offer.

I am afraid that the only way through this is patience and time, coupled with some dramatic changes on both sides of the ball, come next spring. Hopefully, the young sophomores and juniors can bond tightly over the remaining five games and during the course of the off-season, committing themselves to leading the team in ‘03. The defensive philosophy needs to be overhauled, and made to be more aggressive. And a maniacal focus on the running game needs to be the mantra during the spring and summer months of next year.

For UW fans, the only way to really enjoy the coming weeks is to adopt the mentality of a true football fan. Enjoy the game for its display of competition. And – painful to say-- lower the expectations that we have for this team, at least for now, at least until the season is over. It would be madness otherwise, watching games with the historically founded expectation that Washington will come out and hit somebody in the mouth. Yet as each game progresses, it is Washington who is being bloodied and fooled, looking out of position and lacking the necessary fire that champions possess.

The USS Husky has sprung several leaks, and is in serious trouble. It is a rudderless boat, drifting aimlessly and beginning to sink, into the cold, dreary water that is the Pac-10 schedule.

But if the fans provide intensity for the remaining two home games, perhaps they can help lift UW to a triumph it may not have had otherwise. They can provide that rudder.
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories