Football practice at the University of Washington has had less to do with the zone blitz than it has had to do with healing.
And really, in the first days of Curtis Williams’ stay at Stanford Medical Center, just how much healing is possible?
Coach Rick Neuheisel has done exactly the right things in the most heartbreaking time in Husky history. He has encouraged the players to talk about their teammate, has been publicly as upbeat as possible for Williams to have a complete recovery from his spinal-cord injury and has enlisted the help of others who have coached players with similar experiences, namely Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
On Wednesday, the team formed a 25, Williams’ number, and posed for a photo taken from the press box in support of Williams. The players will wear “25” decals on their uniforms to honor him.
Anyone who still believes that Neuheisel is in this job for the money wasn’t around him this week. He looked exhausted. Drawn. Sadder than I’ll ever want to see anyone in his profession.
But on more than one occasion, he mentioned how proud he is of this undertalented, overachieving team. He means it.
By all accounts, this is a closely knit group that has become even closer following Williams’ injury. The players themselves have mentioned that closeness as a major factor in coming from behind in six of their seven victories, including Saturday’s stunning victory at Stanford.
It’s a team whose members love each other. Elliot Silvers may have ripped Anthony Kelley’s helmet off and thrown it at him during preseason drills, but I’ve also seen the two exchange laughs and hugs.
It’s an astonishingly resilient bunch whose resiliency will be tested as few teams have been tested before.
The question: How can it possibly get past its searing heartache for the 3 1/2 hours it’ll take against Arizona?
I’m not even on the team, but I’ve felt it. I’ve talked to Williams on occasion. I’ve written stories about him, but I really don’t know him. And I’ve thought of little else all week.
Williams’ circumstance has affected many. I’m agnostic, but I still asked my mother to mention Williams in a prayer group she belongs to. It couldn’t hurt, I told her. People who know as much about football as they do about interplanetary travel have asked me about Williams.
It’s because Williams’ plight goes well beyond football. He touches anyone who’s had a child. I’ve hugged my 6-year-old daughter more often this week than I have in the last month.
I can’t imagine what Williams’ parents are feeling.
Again, the question: How can the Huskies deal with any of this?
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Husky Stadium.
TV, radio: ABC-TV (Channel 4), KOMO radio (1000 AM).
Stars to watch: Washington – The Huskies as a whole will look to quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo for leadership in their first game since Williams’ injury. The defense will look to Hakim Akbar, who moves into Williams’ spot at strong safety, while freshman Greg Carothers starts at free safety. Nose tackle Larry Tripplett’s skills as a leader also will be tested. An emotional, distracted week of practice is done. Now the Huskies have to play.
Arizona – Fans remember quarterback Ortege Jenkins’ game-winning flip into the endzone last season, but this team does it with defense. Dubbed the “Cactus Curtain,” the rush defense is ranked sixth nationally and has allowed four rushing touchdowns this year. Defensive tackle Anthony Thomas has 10 tackles for loss. Defensive end Joe Tafoya is the conference’s best at his position. Redshirt freshman corner Michael Jolivette has five interceptions to lead the secondary.
Breaking down the game: Arizona allows sacks, and therein lies the Huskies’ thrust. Jenkins can run, but he has to. Watch for Washington to load up on blitz packages against a very average offense. The Wildcats will try the same with Tuiasosopo, who has to be at his improvising best.
Bottom line: With tragedy on their minds, there’s no reason to expect Washington can get it together enough to pull this one out. Which is precisely the reason it will.
Pick: Washington, 24-20.
Kickoff: 2 p.m. Saturday at Martin Stadium, Pullman.
TV, radio: No live TV, but Fox Sports Net will air it on tape delay at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. KJR radio (950 AM).
Stars to watch: Washington State – Teams are learning how to defend quarterback Jason Gesser. Just a few games ago, he was on a 130-pass streak without an interception. Since then, he is 29-for-68 passing, with seven picks and three TDs. Obviously, he’s got to pick it up. Still, he leads the conference in passing efficiency. Milton Wynn is second in the Pac-10 with a little better than 100 receiving yards a game. Billy Newman, Marcus Trufant and Mory Banks are among the conference leaders in interceptions.
Oregon – Tailback Maurice Morris’ sore ribs made him miss practice Tuesday, but he should play. Quarterback Joey Harrington isn’t flashy, but he’s efficient and leads the conference in total offense. Wideout Keenan Howrey is a treat to break a big play at any time.
Breaking down the game: Mistakes have cost the Cougars dearly in the three-game losing streak they’re on. That won’t fly against Oregon, which is 13-2 in November under coach Mike Bellotti and is looking at a Rose Bowl berth. But about those 667 yards the Ducks allowed Arizona State …
Bottom line: The Ducks are banged up, but Harrington should find a way against the worst defense in the Pac-10.
Pick: Oregon, 54-31.
Oregon State at Cal: With the first 8-1 start ever in school history at stake, the Beavers’ balloon shows no sign of popping. OSU is looking at a Rose Bowl berth, but seems likely to go to the Sun Bowl, or even the Holiday. Ken Simonton is the first Pac-10 runner ever to gain 1,000 yards as a freshman, sophomore and a junior. Quarterback Jonathan Smith has thrown for 11 TDs in the last three games. Administration is trying to put together another big-time contract offer to keep Dennis Erickson from hopping down to USC. Oregon State? A football factory? Sheesh! Pick: OSU, 38-10.
Stanford at UCLA: Pay little attention to Stanford’s late-game run against the Huskies. It happened after the defenders had Williams’ injury on their minds. It’s an average team going against a Bruin squad that’s finally getting some healthy bodies back on both sides of the ball. Pick: UCLA, 31-14.
USC at Arizona State: The only question worth asking: Who’s gonna coach these teams next season? Pick: ASU, 23-20.
Virginia Tech at Miami: While most are looking at the health of Michael Vick as the Hokies’ most important factor, the defense should be the biggest concern. Pitt showed that Virginia Tech can be had by big plays. The Hokies are going to have to show Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey different looks. Washington saw a Santana Moss with an injured ankle. The Hokies have no such break. Pick: Miami, 35-30.
Clemson at Florida State: The Seminoles are rolling and the Tigers have given up 953 yards in the last two weeks. Don’t forget, Florida State is on a 50-game home win streak. Pick: Florida State, 42-14.
Michigan at Northwestern: This one’s important in case Purdue falls along the way to what likely will be its berth in the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats haven’t scored a touchdown against the Wolverines since 1996. That will change, as Northwestern averages a Big Ten-best 36.5 points a game. Purdue stopped Damien Anderson by designating a linebacker to trail him. Look for Michigan to do the same. Pick: Michigan, 28-27.
Sleeper pick of the day: Iowa State 28, Kansas State 17.