Win or lose, Dawgs need to show improvement

Athletes and coaches like to say there is no such thing as a moral victory.

To them, moral victories are about as real as Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy.

Well put your teeth under a pillow and be sure to leave out the milk and cookies, Huskies, because a moral victory is a very real concept for Washington with top-ranked USC coming to town Saturday.

I’m not saying the Huskies can’t upset the mighty Trojans. See Appalachian State vs. Michigan for evidence that crazy upsets are always possible in college football. But should the much more likely scenario take place — the one where a bigger, faster, more talented USC comes to Montlake and sends the Husky faithful home disappointed — there are still things Washington can do to take some sting off the loss.

For starters, keep the game close.

Vegas oddsmakers, football experts and common sense all tell us that Washington will be 2-3 and on a three-game losing streak by about 8:30 Saturday night. But that 2-3 will feel a whole lot worse if the Huskies lose by 30 points.

Last year, in Los Angeles, the Huskies played the Trojans close, and were driving for a possible winning score when time ran out. Several Washington players have said this week that they gained confidence from that game. It showed them they could hang with the best.

On Saturday, they need to prove it.

The Huskies can’t afford to be outplayed as badly as they were against UCLA. They say the problems were fixable mistakes. USC isn’t exactly the easiest team to fix mistakes against, but Washington needs to show some improvement, even if that doesn’t result in a win.

“We’re OK,” center Juan Garcia said. “We just need to execute better. I know people are starting to write us off and everything. It’s not what teams are doing to us, it’s what we’re doing to ourselves mostly. I’m telling you one of these games — it might be this Saturday — we’re going to put a game together and let everyone know, and everybody is going to be like, ‘Wow, these guys are really back.’ We have a good team. I know we have a good team. Nobody’s got their head down. It was a tough lesson Saturday. We’ve got to come out fired up.

“Don’t write us off yet.”

Saturday, win or lose, the Huskies can prove Garcia right. While the Huskies won’t feel comfortable with any loss, close or otherwise, staying in the game for four quarters would at least keep fans from panicking heading into the bye week.

Win or lose Saturday, Washington can show that it has figured out how run the ball successfully with its tailbacks. For three straight games, quarterback Jake Locker has been Washington’s lone running threat.

Win or lose, the Huskies need to convince fans that there isn’t a tense situation developing with the team’s starting tailback. On the same day Tim Lappano, Washington’s offensive coordinator, was talking about giving other tailbacks more carries, Louis Rankin talked about wanting more touches for himself.

“We will probably have a little different rotation in there,” Lappano said. “I don’t know who yet, but we’ll have a little bit of a rotation there.”

About an hour earlier, Rankin had said, “When we don’t run the ball as much as we should, I don’t think it’s really that we can’t run the ball. I think it’s just the scheme we’re going with right now. We’re throwing the ball and doing some runs with the quarterback, so we’re taking away a little bit from the tailback.”

Rankin is no malcontent. He went on to point out that the Huskies were throwing the ball well in the second half against UCLA, saying he can’t be “selfish” in situations where other things are working. But he also admitted that he was getting frustrated during that game.

A good game by Rankin, win or lose, could put those concerns to rest in a hurry.

Win or lose, the Huskies need to play better run defense. The 333 yards gained by UCLA, many of which came on big runs, needs to be a wakeup call for Washington. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer said the mistakes that led to the big plays are “very correctable.” His defense needs to prove him right on Saturday.

Win or lose, the Huskies need to play better in the second half. Against Ohio State, Washington led 7-3 leaving the locker room, and walked back down the tunnel as 33-14 losers. In the Rose Bowl last week, Washington and UCLA were tied 10-10 at halftime, but the Bruins outscored the Huskies 14-0 in the third quarter on the way to a 44-31 win.

And finally, win or lose, the Huskies can feel a lot better about their first five games if they stay healthy. Right now, the Huskies are in good health, by football standards anyway. Surviving a brutal five-game opening stretch of the season — OK, maybe we should say brutal four-game stretch after seeing Syracuse — without major injury would be an accomplishment of its own.

Despite two losses, the Huskies insist their confidence is still high. Saturday night, they need to prove it.

“As a team, we know that we can be great, and we know that we’re going to be great,” safety Mesphin Forrester said when asked about the team’s confidence. “I looked in the players’ eyes, and we know we can be a great team, so that’s not an issue.”

An upset of USC doesn’t seem likely, but another close game with the Trojans, even if it ends in defeat, could make fans feel a lot better about the direction of the program.

Contact Herald Writer John Boyle at For more on University of Washington athletics, check out the Huskies blog at /huskiesblog.

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