Washington's season may look bleak at this point, but the Huskies' continue to work on improving many areas of the team, one of those being the running game. No Washington player has yet to record a 100-yard rushing effort. The combination of a very young stable of running backs, Jake Locker's likely season-ending injury and a lack of consistency from the offensive line, all play a part in not producing a 100-yard rusher.
"That's something that this football team needs to have happen. We definitely need to find a way to run the football," said Offensive Line Coach Mike Denbrock. "That obviously starts with the guys up front. We need to do a better job of blocking people and moving people around. We've got to make the running backs' job a lot easier than we have. We've done it at times, but the consistency that we need has not been there, and this is a great week to do that.
"It's kind of a coach speak answer, but it's always a combination of things. For whatever reason, we haven't been in the kind of sync this year that we were a year ago," explained Denbrock. "Some of that is experience at the running back position. Some of that is your quarterback being injured the last couple of weeks. Some of that is not being as effective as we needed to be up front. When the running backs seem to be seeing it really well and running the ball well, we're not blocking as well as we need to. When we're blocking it really well, maybe we're not seeing it as well as we need to. We've seemed out of sync more than anything else. We need to try to gain some consistency in that, and I think the runs will come. One group, and it's the offensive line in particular in my opinion, has to prove themselves consistent enough so we can get things straightened out every place else."
Getting the running game up and running will be no easy task against Oregon State's defensive front. Junior college transfer Stephen Paea anchors the front four with a style of play that has impressed Washington Offensive Coordinator Tim Lappano.
"I really like 54 [Paea], he's freaking dynamite. He's a son of a gun in there. In my opinion, he's their best player on defense. He's a really good football player," exclaimed Lappano. "They've done a good job recruiting junior college players, and this kid is a prime example of that. He's stout, he's quick, he's got good hands and he pushes the pocket inside. He can chase the football and he runs sideline-to-sideline. He's a really good football player."
Lappano also has a healthy respect for the Beavers' two starting senior defensive ends, Victor Butler and Slade Norris. At 6-foot-2, 235-pounds and 6-foot-3, 245-pounds respectively, Butler and Norris may not be the biggest, but they bring a pass rush that's a force to be reckoned with.
"They have two speed guys off the edge - 58 [Norris] and 90 [Butler], both are extremely fast and get up the field on you. Your quarterback has got to be careful. If he pushes up and you can't handle 54, that's a problem, because now you can't go anywhere because they've got you boxed in," explained Lappano. "That's something we've got to be aware of and address, but I love their tackle and both of their ends are great players. Overall, their front four is pretty good.
"When you watch these guys on film, they're a totally different team against Penn State than against USC - it's night and day. You can tell they've grown and they've gained some confidence. They're playing better and they get better every week," expressed Lappano. "These guys have done a hell of a job getting the most out of their personnel, because there probably wasn't a lot of five star recruits on this defense. But when you watched them play SC, you wouldn't know that, because they pushed them around up front. They're flying around, they're more physical, playing harder. From a schematic standpoint, they don't do a whole lot, but what they do, they do really well."
Heading into the season, Washington's offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the Huskies. And while it still may be, the group has struggled at times this season, and has yet to play with consistency. Matters weren't helped earlier this week when it was announced that starting right guard, senior Casey Bulyca will undergo knee surgery.
"We've kind of had that fear for the last two or three weeks. He's had some trouble with his knee. We weren't sure exactly what was going on. Those guys get banged around pretty good in there on most plays," said Denbrock. "It was something he was able to kind of snap back from pretty quickly early on. We continued to keep an eye on it, and it seemed to get a little more sore as the weeks went along. It's time to go in there and take a look and see exactly what's going on."
"He's been hobbled for a couple of weeks and it's been bothering him. He's been grinding through it, but he knows he hadn't been really effective. It's really come to a point where it's not helping anybody. He's not playing real well with it. He knew he wasn't helping the team with it," said Lappano. "It started up in the Stanford game. In the Arizona game, it was clear he couldn't torque it and push off it. He was basically playing on one side, and it wasn't helping him or anybody."
However, Denbrock doesn't foresee Bulyca's absence dramatically affecting the chemistry and play of the offensive line, since sophomore Ryan Tolar who started 12 of the Huskies' 13 games at left guard in 2007, will fill in for the injured senior.
"I don't know that it affects it that much. Ryan's played a lot of football and those guys all trust him, know him and understand his in's and out's and the things he does well. They've played together a lot, so I don't think it will have that big of an impact," expressed Denbrock. "Ryan's been our security blanket all year long, in case something went wrong on the inside. As things have tended to go this year, nothing seems to exactly fall into place the way you'd like it to. Having him is a luxury that we've had since the beginning of the year. His experience that he's had starting a bunch of games since he's been here is going to be helpful."
Running the ball for the Huskies this weekend will be a mixture of freshman Terrance Dailey, freshman Willie Griffin and sophomore Brandon Johnson. Johnson rushed the ball 13 times for 35 yards against Arizona, Dailey toted the rock six times for 18 yards and Griffin carried the ball three times for 21 yards. Freshman David Freeman, who was beginning to emerge as a solid running back, is still recovering from an ankle injury and will not play against the Beavers.
"We've got three guys that can play, Willie Griffin, Brandon Johnson and Terrance Dailey. I think Brandon's ready to go - he ran Sunday. He was really banged up after the Arizona game. I don't know what's going on with David Freeman. He's got two ankles [injured], and he didn't run on Sunday, so I don't know what's going to happen," explained Lappano. "Right now, I'm counting on those three guys. We'll have a good week of practice this week. We had a good week last week and we had some fun, which I thought was good. They gave us three good days - spirits were up. Today we've got to start all over, let those guys get after it, and we'll see who starts."
One area Washington's running backs must improve upon if they are to succeed is their tendency to fumble. Griffin fumbled twice against Arizona
"It started in the spring. He wasn't a fumbler in high school - I recruited him. For some reason, he started laying the ball on the ground in the spring. He laid it in two-a-days in scrimmage's. He went back-to-back in the Arizona game, it was critical," expressed Lappano of Griffin's struggles holding onto the ball. "I think he's got to be aware of it, and do everything he can to make sure that he uses the five points of pressure. Get the ball tucked in underneath his pit and against his ribs and squeeze it."
However, Griffin isn't the only Husky to come down with a case of fumbleitis this season.
"We've laid the ball on the ground six times, we can't do that. Six fumbles through this point in time, we have seven games left, that's too many. That's one a game at least, and we can't do that, especially on a short field," stressed Lappano. "Everybody's got to leverage the football, Jake laid it on the ground before he got hurt. We've got to coach it better and coach it harder, because that doesn't give you a chance to win when you're laying the ball on the ground."
Griffin discussed the issue of fumbling, which he feels was more based on his excitement for the situation more than anything else.
"I think it was the excitement and adrenaline of being out there, being the starter. At the same time, not really finishing my plays as far as keeping the ball locked down. The one that they did call a fumble, I would have to disagree with that, I was in the pile," explained Griffin. "But at the same time, as [Washington Head Coach Tyrone] Willingham says, think like a pro. I wasn't thinking like a pro. I thought I was down, and somebody was under me, so by the time I was trying to get up, I kind of let a little leverage off the ball and they went for it."
So what's the game plan against Oregon State?
"We haven't changed anything. We're still running our same plays. Basically as a running back, going out there and taking what the defense gives you," explained Griffin. "Every play isn't going to go for the big 10, maybe 20 yards, but you still have to take what they give you, and eventually something big will happen."
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