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What to Make of these Dawgs?
By: Derek Johnson, Posted 30 September 2002

 It is the best of times, it is the worst of timesÖ 

Well, we canít exactly start off the article like that, can we?  It isnít really very accurate.  Indeed, it is the best of times for Cody Pickett, fresh off throwing for 438 yards and setting a mind-boggling pace that would make even Ken Dorsey gulp.  And the Huskies are rolling up over 500 yards a game, and are only one play away from being 4-0.  There are positives to enjoy there.

            And on the flip side, it certainly isnít literally the worst of times.  After all, Washington isnít on probation.  No tiles from the Husky Stadium ceiling have fallen, causing the Dawgs to play all their remaining home games on the road.  And no tsunamis have risen up from Puget Sound and engulfed Husky Stadium, rendering the playing surface underwater. 

            However, something just slightly less severe than that did occur against Idaho in the first half, when Washington came up woefully short on a 4th-and-one attempt, with an off-tackle smash.  They were stuffed again at the line of scrimmage.  This points to something that has been a concern, and that is the lack of push on running plays.  It is certainly alarming, that against an undersized Idaho defensive line, we canít ram the ball right at them and gain one yard.  I donít care if Julia Child is our running back, we should be able to get one yard against Idaho.  Every time.

            The amazing paradox is that Washingtonís pass blocking is as good as anybodyís in the nation.  It certainly sets a beautiful foundation from which to unleash the lethal passing attack.

            Cody Pickett is riding high right now, and is being heralded as having taken his abilities to another level.  But it must be remembered that in the last two weeks, Washington has played the two worst passing defenses in the nation.  This, of course, influences greatly the stats.  Look at Oregon Stateís Derek Anderson as an example.  Just yesterday, the Seattle-PIís Ted Miller was anointing Anderson as a future high first-round draft pick.  This may certainly prove to be the case down the line.  But many people were seduced by his eye-popping numbers, such as a touchdown to interception ratio of 15-1.  He was playing those rinky-dink nickel slot machines, like Eastern Kentucky and Temple.  It was easy to light those up.  But at the gambling tables that are Pac-10 opponents, Anderson crapped out Saturday night.  A dreadful 8-for-30 performance brought to him an early exit from the game, and left fans re-evaluating Oregon Stateís prospects.

            So we cannot judge Cody Pickett on what we have seen thus far.

            This is not to say that Pickett isnít great, but the question is just how effective will he be when he doesnít have an hour and a half to throw the ball every time he drops back to pass.

            Idaho coach Tom Cableís stated after the game that Pickett could be rattled if defenders pressured him and knocked him down a few times.  Color commentator Chuck Nelson disagreed with that assessment.  But history has shown that this can be true.    Against Miami, Pickett was flustered into some hideous decisions and made a multitude of mistakes that cost Washington. 

            There is no question that Pickett is ultimately going to be playing on Sundays.  The real question at this moment is how truly far along is he in his development? 

To look at this further, letís take USCís lightening-fast, aggressive defense as an example.  If I am the USC Defensive Coordinator, I look at the UW game films and see the obvious.  Even against inferior opponents, Washington canít get any push up front on running plays.  So donít load the box with defenders, but play a standard 4-3.  Play a lot of nickel packages with multiple zone looks.  Have a safety shadowing Reggie Williams and helping out the corner backs.  Work some linebacker crashes into the mix, and try to get some semblance of pressure on Pickett during passing plays (which would be perhaps very tough).

            If Pickett is ever having an off day, or if blustery winds are whipping up off of Lake Washington, or if top-notch defensive backs can clamp down on Washington receivers, it could force the Huskies to resort to the running game.  In the event that Washington canít run the ball at all against a straight four-man front, then we have some trouble on our hands.

            This is not to say that it would be Rich Alexisí fault. He has progressed so well and has come so far.  He is working very hard and has such fine athletic ability.  He is going to be the Pac-10ís very best at that position, by the time he plays his final game at UW.  I have no doubt, that barring injury, he too will be playing on Sundays.

            I am also not saying here that I donít embrace our high-flying offensive attack.  It is incredibly fun to watch, and effective so far.  But the fact remains that the nationís most prolific aerial offenses typically come from southern climes.  They usually herald from areas where the weather is usually ideal for throwing the football around, unimpeded by Mother Nature.  Look at Oklahoma and Nebraska, who have always been able to run the ball due to the necessity caused by harsh conditions.  Look at the Florida teams, always entertaining the nation with their aerial circus attacks.  Look at Michigan and Ohio State, brandishing reputations as smash-mouth football powerhouses.  And look at Washington, where we have had a reputation for decent, low-risk running games and stout defenses.  Our weather and environment gave shape to our gridiron identity all those decades and up until recently.

            I just hope that we can rely on throwing 60 times a game when the weather is difficult, and still be able to win the tough, key games.

           My other concern is the attention span and consistency of the football team as a whole.  It seems incapable of playing at a high level for sixty minutes.  At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I would like to liken it to something from my early-to-mid teenage years.  At times my old room would be an absolute garbage pit, resembling one of those old photos of London following the Blitzkrieg.  However, when I was motivated, or needed to borrow money from my Dad, it was amazing how hard I worked to make it shine.  It was amazing how everything could be so very neat and orderly with just a little bit of desire and elbow grease. 

            On the other hand, when I didnít really have a motivation, when there was no fire lit under me, it was equally as amazing how I would do just enough to keep the debris from migrating out into the hallway.  Or at the times when my Dad was imploring me to clean up my room, it was just so easy to gather up armfuls of clothes and books, pile them into the closet, and then wrestle with the door until it fully closed (like Theo Huxtable from The Cosby Show).

            This is not stated to make a mockery of the Huskies, or to imply that without Neuheisel pushing them that they would fall to pieces.  But look at every game this year.  The slow start at Michigan (which in the end was a proud, valiant effort); the sleepwalk through the first half against San Jose State (saved by a great second half); the lapses in concentration and breakdowns against Wyoming (denying what should have been a 50-point difference), and the 2nd-half unraveling against Idaho (allowing the Vandals back in the game, instead of putting them away)..

            It may be that the level of play being exhibited by their opponent on any given day is what motivates this yearís UW team.  It may simply be that we fans wish for the Huskies to inherently possess a demonic inner motivation like the 1991 team had.  That just may not be the style of our players.  That may not be fair to expect.

            But I can feel from many Husky fans, that we are so excited about this team, and are anticipating so much.  Yet, right when it feels like we are about to really crush a team, we let them right back into it.  This is an established pattern.  And it makes the diehard fans rather edgy at times.

            From these two above factors, it is pretty simple to anticipate the remainder of the season.  There is far too much talent and inner fire for the Huskies to be blown out by anyone.  But there isnít a driving need among the Husky players to completely dominate their opponents.  There is a tremendous desire to win.  But at times, some sort of foreign substance seems to get into the proverbial gas tank and it contaminates the level and intensity of play.  Perhaps Gilby the Mechanic can pop the hood this week and do some tinkering.

            Every game from here on out will be relatively close when the scoreboard reads 0:00.  There will be contests when Washington is way ahead at halftime, then has to hold off a furious rally.  There will be a contest or two where Washington will be two touchdowns behind, and will stage a furious comeback.  There will be no questioning Washingtonís will to win in the fourth quarter.  We will be in for some cardiac finishes.  So Washington will finish out at either 9-3 or 10-2 and be right in the running for the Rose Bowl.  But for all the amazing offensive weapons, it will resemble more the 2000 Huskies than the 1991 Huskies.      

            I donít see the ďfull sixty minutesĒ factor changing at all.  I do see the possibility of vast improvement in red zone efficiency.  And I do think that our defense is far better than what people are generally giving credit for.

            Heaven help the foes of Washington.

Derek Johnson can be reached at djohnson@PigskinPost.com



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