As the University of Washington Huskies opened another gridiron campaign Friday, Aug. 31, with what could be a destiny-changing 42-12 bruising of Syracuse University, some may have looked beyond the opening road game and thought about a second late-summer Seattle tradition that has prevailed during all but a few of the past 31 years. It's the time when the Mariners signal that football season has arrived and baseball can be forgotten for another six months.
This year the M's were particularly flagrant, indicating their apparent concession of the 2007 season by setting what must be a big-league record of futility. They ended August by dropping seven straight games in as many days to four teams in different cities. Doing so (losing 7-5 Friday, Aug. 31, at Toronto), M's players seemed to shrug in the direction of their remaining followers and pose their usual September rhetorical question: "Are you ready for some football?"
Fans are. The late-afternoon gathering at the Duchess tavern in Seattle's Ravenna neighb, for example, featured a very purple-appareled, wall-widening assortment of Dawg-lovers: students and alum-bums of many descriptions. By the end of the first half, a dozen still waited outside to get into the packed shack, where six of the seven television sets played the ESPN broadcast of the Husky game. The seventh TV screen? It was not the M's losing to the Blue Jays but the Detroit-Indiana WNBA playoff game. Not to disparage women's basketball, but when your local sports bar has out-of-town WNBA instead of the M's, it's a safe assumption that the baseball season as a marketing concept has been abandoned.
Anyway, the Huskies were playing season-opening football to match the Don James years. Jake Locker, the redshirt-freshman quarterback, was better than the giddiest of optimists imagined, completing 14 of 19 passes and rushing - swiftly, elusively, and frequently - for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Locker is the Ferndale High phenom from Whatcom County, Wash., many believe can be the best among the UW's superb quarterbacks who have gone on to excel in the NFL for 30 years. Skeptics felt that coach Tyrone Willingham hadn't yet assembled enough supporting players for Locker to survive, let alone triumph. Others, including quarterback authorities ranging from savvy Husky and NFL star Hugh Millen to plain-spoken nomadic coach Dennis Erickson (now the mentor at Arizona State) are on record projecting 6-4, 225-pound Locker as, in effect, a once-in-his-generation QB: a John Elway, perhaps, but maybe a better, faster runner.
Of course, it's a little early to make effusive predictions, especially given the auspicious Husky schedule. The team opens at home Sept. 8 against a Boise State team that is still impressive despite losing key players from its glory season last year. Then it's the remainder of a 13-game slate that includes Ohio State, USC, and the rest of the competitive Pac-10 conference. A 5-8 record would be better than many Husky Hopers can imagine; 8-5 would mean the Willingham era is here and maybe here to stay.
Late during the ESPN broadcast (interrupted a few times to monitor a Minnesota Twins pitcher's unsuccessful attempt at a perfect game), one of the football announcers mused about how other Pac-10 coaches will regard a smart-looking, albeit very inexperienced, Husky team that had been picked eighth or worse in the conference. One guess is that rival coaches will be impressed about the Huskies' minimizing of mistakes. They had solid, productive possessions on offense and aggressive efforts on defense. Louis Rankin, with 147 yards and three touchdowns, looked like a credible featured running back. Opposing teams now have to focus on more than one offensive element. The UW skill guys on defense were quick and efficient at limiting the options of the Syracuse offense, which gained just 197 yards to UW's 418.
So the collective impression amid local fandom seems to be that football season has replaced baseball. As August waned, a typical sentiment was expressed by a caller to sports-talk KJR-AM radio. He heartily thanked the M's for getting him to September and bid the team bye-bye for the year.
One imagines if the Huskies are 2-0 after the Boise State game and the Seahawks open with a Sept. 9 home win against Tampa Bay, the M's meantime could win seven straight, rejoin the playoff race, and still leave locals, to borrow from the lyric, unready for some baseball.