Still running on empty
Seattle Times staff reporter
Fans who've been reading and hearing all spring about the Washington Huskies' newfound commitment to the running game surely left yesterday's Purple-White game wondering what the fuss has been about.
On the surface, anyway, the Huskies who closed spring drills yesterday looked a lot like the ones who ended last season. The Huskies rushed for 102 yards on 64 carries as the Purple, which consisted primarily of the first offense and the second defense, beat the White (second offense and first defense) 21-19 in front of an estimated 7,000 fans at Husky Stadium.
OK, so there were 47 yards lost on quarterback sacks. Still, UW running backs gained just 101 yards on 44 carries, with a long rush of just 8 yards. The only two runs of the day for double-digit yards were by quarterbacks, including a 16-yard TD run by Isaiah Stanback, who may have made a move on sophomore Casey Paus in the race for the backup QB spot.
"Hell, yeah, I thought we were going to see more running," said offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson, who called the game the worst effort by the No. 1 offense all spring. "But what we saw is what we saw."
And what they saw is a team that still has a lot of work to do before thinking about going into Columbus and beating the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes on Aug. 30. The Huskies' needs include shoring up their kicking game, finding some backup receivers and settling the backup QB issue.
The running game, however, remains the most glaring concern, if only because it was such a weakness a year ago (the Huskies rushed for a school-worst 74.5 yards per game) and has been the focus of so much work this spring. The caveat, of course, is that neither Rich Alexis nor Kenny James — probably the top two running backs on the depth chart — played because of injury. Alexis missed all spring with a shoulder injury, and James missed the last three weeks after hurting his knee.
Despite that, the Huskies would have liked to see someone make a solid claim on the job. Instead, UW coach Rick Neuheisel said the job remains wide open entering fall camp.
"No one stepped up and said, 'It's mine,' and no one put themselves out of the running, either," Neuheisel said.
Neuheisel, though, said the line might have been as much to blame as the backs for the lack of production.
"I believe we are on the right track (running the ball)," Neuheisel said. "Do I believe we are ready to lead the Pac-10 in rushing? No. But I believe we are on the right track."
And maybe, an optimist might suggest, the UW defense has improved just that much that it made the UW's offense look that sluggish.
"There were definitely a lot of good things out there," said co-defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who wrapped up his first spring with the Huskies.
The defense had 12 sacks, including seven on quarterbacks who were playing live, meaning they could be tackled. The defense also had two interceptions and forced and recovered two fumbles.
The starting defense generally had the upper hand on the No. 1 offense, allowing just 36 yards on 13 plays after the offense drove 44 yards for a touchdown the first time it had the ball.
"It wasn't the best day for the offense," said receiver Reggie Williams. "We had a couple of three-and-outs and we couldn't keep a drive going. But we'll get better. The run game will get better and the offensive line will get better and we'll be all right. We'll be solid."
After scoring on the opening drive, the No. 1 offense didn't score again until the fourth quarter when it reverted to its air game and Cody Pickett hit Williams for a 27-yard touchdown pass.
The brightest spot of the day might have been a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by senior cornerback Roc Alexander, who missed the last half of last season after having shoulder surgery and was replaced by Nate Robinson. With Robinson gone, Alexander has to not only start once again but show he can stay healthy.
Alexander made three tackles and intercepted a Pickett pass intended for Williams that was tipped by Jimmy Newell and returned it 45 yards.
"It was real fun out there," said Alexander, who led the Pac-10 in kickoff returns in 2001 but didn't return any a year ago while nursing the shoulder injury. "It's been a long time since I played, and I didn't know if I still had it in me."
• Senior linebacker Greg Carothers, who normally wears No. 34, wore No. 25 yesterday in tribute to former UW safety Curtis Williams, who died last May of complications from the paralyzing injury suffered on the field in 2000. Carothers said he decided to wear Williams' number for the spring game after remembering that he had last talked to Williams at the spring game a year ago when Williams made his only trip to Seattle after being injured. "It was just to remind everyone that he is still important to a lot of people on this team," Carothers said. No one has worn No. 25 since Williams was hurt. Carothers will return to No. 34 in the fall.
• Other than another solid performance from walk-on kicker Evan Knudson, who was 2 for 2 with a long of 40, the kicking games were subpar. The Huskies are counting on incoming freshmen — kicker Mike Braunstein and punter Sean Douglas — to solve those problems.
• Among the defensive standouts was DE Manase Hopoi, moved recently to the rush-end position. Hopoi had three sacks. "He looked like a disruptive football player out there," Neuheisel said. Also looking good were DT Jerome Stevens, who had two sacks and seven tackles, and freshman LB Scott White, who led all tacklers with eight.
• There appeared to be no injuries in the game. DT Junior Coffin, expected to play, sat out to rest a neck stinger.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|The Huskies' 2003 football season:|
|Aug. 30||Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio|
|Sept. 6||Indiana||Husky Stadium|
|Sept. 20||Idaho||Husky Stadium|
|Sept. 27||Stanford||Husky Stadium|
|Oct. 4||UCLA||Pasadena, Calif.|
|Oct. 11||Nevada||Husky Stadium|
|Oct. 18||Oregon State||Corvallis, Ore.|
|Oct. 25||USC||Husky Stadium|
|Nov. 1||Oregon||Husky Stadium|
|Nov. 8||Arizona||Tucson, Ariz.|
|Nov. 15||California||Berkeley, Calif.|
|Nov. 22||Washington State||Husky Stadium|