One man's one-man team

Biding time until coach Tyrone Willingham is gone, cranky University of Washington football fans at least get to watch an NFL quarterback prospect excel. Jake Locker does so in spite of those around him.
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University of Washington football coach Tyrone Willingham. (Billy A / Creative Commons)

Biding time until coach Tyrone Willingham is gone, cranky University of Washington football fans at least get to watch an NFL quarterback prospect excel. Jake Locker does so in spite of those around him.

Somebody's going to build a good — maybe even great — football team around Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Locker. Judging from the Saturday, Aug. 30, season opener, in which the Oregon Ducks for the fifth year in a row showed their Northwest-best stuff, this time with a 44-10 win, Locker will make some National Football League general manager very happy.

Mirth eludes UW partisans. Many of them (for evidence, go to the Seattle Times online Husky Football forum) won't even begin to grin until the Tyrone Willingham coaching era ends. The Huskies are an obvious read: Stop Locker and everything else stops with him. That's all the coaches from Brigham Young, Oklahoma, and eight other Pac-10 teams need to know. Locker easily led his team in passing and running, and might even have led in receiving if his mentors could figure out a way to have him pass to himself. But the gifted runner (the gift is even more apparent since a hamstring injury had him half-hobbled) is being forced to play against big-time college powers while surrounded by teammates many of whom (24 are freshmen) are better suited to big-time high-school competition.

Locker ran — often out of apparent desperation — 16 times for 57 yards. Five other Huskies had 38 yards on 27 carries. We repeat: 27 carries. Yes, the defense is complicit, especially given that the Ducks had twice the Huskies' total yards, even though UW led by 11 minutes in possession time. At halftime, the Dawgs were only down 14-10 and still were within 11 as the fourth quarter commenced. But the Duck offense is less a rugby scrum than a track meet. It must have surprised no one amid the regional TV-viewing audience who stayed awake past 10 p.m. when Oregon put up 23 late in the game.

In a perverse way, the unneeded points no doubt were precisely what some Husky backers hope will hasten the demand that this be Willingham's last season at UW. If victory awaits him, it may, ironically, come in the Oct. 25 marquee Husky Stadium game against his former employer, Notre Dame. Other than that, there's nothing on the schedule (which doesn't end until Dec. 6) indicating a case in which the Dawgs would even be favored.

Locker was just 12 for 28 in the air but would have been better — and certainly more confident — had it not been for balls dropped by his paddle-handed "receivers."

In the aftermath, several of the obviously disappointed UW players said they were surprised that they didn't play better. It's a sports cliché, of course. The truth is that it would have been eminently surprising had the team played well. It also would have been nearly unprecedented during the three-years-and-counting Willingham era, when scribes who try to cover the team never know what to expect on game days because the coach won't let anybody watch during practices.

Willingham certainly isn't the only coach who happens to be a certifiable control freak. It's easy to argue that coaches have to be controlling. What's becoming harder to defend is the freakishness of what Willingham is trying to control. His '08 edition sports a new defensive coordinator, Ed Donatell, and the apparently capable Tim Lappano running the offense. But the players remain passionless, if not clueless. Could it be that they're merely playing the way they do during practices? Willingham is the one guy who could tell you, and he won't talk about it.

Meanwhile, the one saving grace of Locker's wasted college career is that it's pretty much impossible that he'd ever play for an NFL team with which not-the-guy Ty Willingham is in any way affiliated.


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