While the Washington Huskies try to fulfill a goal this week of winning the Apple Cup, they could also help answer a question: Is the program...
While the Washington Huskies try to fulfill a goal this week of winning the Apple Cup, they could also help answer a question: Is the program really any better now than it was in 2004?
That was the last time UW entered the Apple Cup in a similar situation — without a Pac-10 win and with a coach who had already been fired.
Then, it was Keith Gilbertson on the way out and the Huskies entering with a 1-9 record overall — the lone win at home against San Jose State. Washington lost that Apple Cup 28-25 to complete a 1-10 season that set a school record for most losses — a record this year’s team, at 0-10, has tied.
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Tyrone Willingham was hired in December 2004 to turn the program around. He hasn’t done so, and three weeks ago was told he wouldn’t be coming back next season.
Willingham maintains that the program is better off now than it was when he inherited it from Gilbertson.
After Saturday’s loss to UCLA, Willingham referenced the 2004 squad, saying he had been reminded by some of the seniors that “a few years ago they went through something like this. And they said the seniors [on the 2004 team] quit. And I don’t think our seniors have quit. I don’t think our football team has quit.”
Conventional wisdom has been that the foundation of the program is better now than it was then, with more returning talent and improved character.
But as the losses have piled up this season, some have begun to wonder — especially about the former assertion — and a loss Saturday to Washington State would only heat up those thoughts.
Washington has one game after the Apple Cup, a Dec. 6 date at California in which the Huskies figure to be huge underdogs. That means their best, and maybe only, chance for a win is this weekend.
Asked if he thought the Huskies were better now than in 2004, senior cornerback Mesphin Forrester answered, “That’s a tough question.” He was sitting out that season as a redshirt.
“No, I can’t say it is,” he said after some thought. “Because we’re still losing. From 2004 to now, we still haven’t been to any bowl games. So I can’t say it’s in better shape.”
A look at some of the numbers would indicate that this team is worse than 2004.
This year’s team, for instance, is being outgained by 190 yards per game (453.4 to 263.5) and has yet to outgain a single foe all season.
The 2004 team was outgained by 58 yards per game (369.5 to 311.0).
This year’s team is being outscored by an average of 39.9 points to 13.9, compared to 30.4 to 14.0 for the 2004 team.
The 2004 team’s biggest failing was a school-record 42 turnovers. Washington has 22 this year.
But, as Forrester pointed out, “the 2004 schedule was a lighter schedule than this one.”
Indeed, the 2004 team hosted Fresno State and San Jose State in nonconference games. The other nonconference game was against a Willingham-coached Notre Dame squad, a 38-3 loss. This year’s team had Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Brigham Young, all at Husky Stadium.
Some might also point to the loss of quarterback Jake Locker as an excuse for the poor offensive numbers this season, and there’s no question he was the most valuable player on the team and his absence was felt deeply.
But the 2004 team also suffered massive injuries, taking bigger hits in terms of numbers.
When UW played at Washington State that season, for instance, four of the team’s five captains — tackle Khalif Barnes, receiver Charles Frederick, linebacker Joe Lobendahn and fullback Zach Tuiasosopo — were out with season-ending injuries.
“Looking back, I don’t think it was necessarily that they quit, it was just that a lot of the seniors were banged up,” Forrester said. “It seemed like everybody was hurt. It was just crazy. And once you get hurt, your mind just starts to wander. So I wouldn’t say they quit.”
Youth is also a convenient excuse this season, as UW has played a school-record 12 true freshmen. The 2004 team played just seven.
Still, in terms of impact players, the 2004 team was as green as this one, especially by the end of the season. So any thought that there is at least more of a young foundation on hand now appears mostly in the eye of the beholder and not in the numbers. Many in 2004 thought the future looked bright thanks to some fairly highly regarded recruiting classes at the end of the Rick Neuheisel era.
As the 2004 Huskies prepared for the Apple Cup, they had five seniors and five freshmen — two true freshmen — in the starting lineup. This year’s team has six seniors and two freshmen likely to start this weekend.
The Huskies finished 2004 trying to the end, losing the Apple Cup to a Cougars team that finished 5-6.
“As far as competing, I wouldn’t say they competed more than us or we competed more than them,” Forrester said. “It is what it is.”
And what it is now is too close to call.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org