Huskies Still A Work In Progress

By Ted Miller
Updated: September 23, 2007

PASADENA, Ca. — Last weekend, UCLA was a national laughingstock. It got buried 44-6 by a lousy Utah team playing without its starting quarterback and starting tailback.

During the week, news reports described a Bruins starting lineup that would be missing seven starters, including quarterback Ben Olson, from the preseason depth chart when the Huskies came to town. Whispers about lackluster practices and uneven resolve leaked out of Westwood.

Heck, intermittent showers and dark clouds made Pasadena feel like Montlake on game day.

It was all there for Washington. Start fast. Make plays. Build confidence. Watch the weak-minded, underachieving Bruins crumble. Notch a statement victory in the Pac-10 opener.

Heck, they’d done that last year at Husky Stadium.

Yet what was abundantly clear watching UCLA whip Washington 44-31 — and the score doesn’t do justice to the Bruins’ superiority — is that the Huskies’ reclamation project still has a ways to go, even when they’re not playing an elite team such as Ohio State.

And that journey probably will end up looking a lot like preseason projections: An uneven, if sometimes entertaining, ride toward the bottom half of the Pac-10.

This is a scrappy, opportunistic bunch. But for the second consecutive weekend they were physically beaten in all phases.

Six quarters ago, they were unbeaten and led Ohio State 7-3. What happened since then? Reality happened.

This mocked and wounded group from UCLA was sloppy, too. Two turnovers in their own territory led to two of the Huskies’ touchdowns, and they were flagged 10 times for 88 yards, compared to three flags for 30 for the UW.

But mano-a-mano, whether in the trenches or in the secondary or on special teams, the Bruins imposed their will. Each time the Huskies seemed on the cusp of improbably making a game of it, the Bruins cast them aside like an annoyed big brother.

What most suspected turned out to be true: Redshirt freshman quarterback Jake Locker can’t do it alone. He may become the greatest quarterback in program history, but he isn’t there yet, and he certainly can’t hoist a struggling offense on his shoulders and carry it to bowl eligibility without supporting playmakers.

Not that he won’t try his damnedest to do so — and both fail and succeed spectacularly in the process.

Locker rushed for 92 yards and passed for 216, hurling four touchdown passes. He also had two interceptions, his fifth and sixth of the season, and one was returned 60 yards for a touchdown. He struggled with his accuracy most of the game — he completed just 17 of 36 — but seemed to find his rhythm during a wild final frame in which the teams combined for 41 points.

“I’m not happy with the way I played today,” Locker said.

Others should have even longer faces. Locker accounted for all but 32 of the Huskies’ total yards.

The bigger issue, however, was the defense, which surrendered 537 total yards, including 333 on the ground.

Defensive coordinator Kent Baer repeatedly blamed the defensive problems on “two long runs.” While Chris Markey piling up 138 of his 193 rushing yards on those “two long runs” was certainly a problem, the other 300 total yards, including the 109 gained by Kahlil Bell went unaccounted for during Baer’s grumpy post-game appearance.

“I don’t understand what you’re asking me,” he said when asked about what went wrong on first down — average play 7.7 yards — and why the Bruins converted on 11 of 20 third-down plays.

Baer might have been getting bearish for a good reason. He’s not going to tell reporters what was obviously wrong: The Huskies were unable to get off blocks and when they did they didn’t tackle particularly well, even when playing against a walk-on, third-string quarterback almost the entire fourth quarter.

Even when they knew the run was coming, they couldn’t stop it.

“It’s hard to say you matched up physically when you give up (333) yards rushing,” coach Tyrone Willingham said.

It’s also hard to say you match up physically when your running backs account for just 40 yards rushing against a defense missing three starters from its front seven.

Offensive coordinator Tim Lappano didn’t place most of the blame on tailback Louis Rankin, who’s struggled since rushing for 147 yards and three touchdowns against Syracuse. Lappano said he didn’t see many holes, and the Bruins appeared to have little difficulty getting penetration. The offensive line was unable to create creases and maintain blocks.

Lappano knows someone needs to be a threat to run the ball other than Locker, who figures to struggle against faster defenses accustomed to playing against the spread.

“We’ve got to get that fixed,” Lappano said of the running woes. “We’ve got to get our tailbacks going.”

Top-ranked USC, which visits Husky Stadium this weekend, isn’t exactly the team you want to play when you’re looking for answers.

Give some credit to UCLA. The Bruins, a team that went from a top-10, potential foil to USC to an unranked punch line, stepped up and showed some gumption.

What happened to the Huskies? They got beaten by a better team.

And it looks like there are more of those ahead.