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Willingham's former team gets the best of him
Seattle Times staff reporter
Washington coach Tyrone Willingham said beforehand that he hoped his players would "grab" some of the emotion when the Huskies faced his former Notre Dame team yesterday and use it to their advantage.
That they did, playing one of their most spirited games in several seasons to hang close with the 16th-ranked, two-touchdown favorites for most of the day.
If only they'd remembered to grab onto the ball as well.
Instead, three turnovers proved Washington's undoing as Notre Dame walked out of town with a 36-17 victory in front of 71,473 and win what Irish coach Charlie Weis had called "the Ty Bowl."
A Craig Chambers fumble at the Notre Dame 1-yard line in the first quarter, an Isaiah Stanback interception in the end zone in the second quarter, and a Kenny James fumble at the Irish 34-yard line in the third quarter killed three UW scoring drives.
And in the process, they ruined any chance Willingham had of beating his former team.
Willingham insisted all week, however, that wasn't his main motivation, that the game meant no more to him than any other.
Give it up for Huskies
Three turnovers hurt Washington yesterday:
Turnover 1: On the 82-yard opening drive, WR Craig Chambers loses a fumble at the Irish 1 after catching a pass and trying to stretch into the end zone.
Turnover 2: With UW trailing 9-3 at the Irish 6, QB Isaiah Stanback throws an interception in the end zone with 3:35 left in the second quarter.
Turnover 3: With UW trailing 12-3, RB Kenny James fumbles the ball away at the UW 34 with 5:32 left in the third quarter.
His players weren't fooled.
"There was a difference at practice last week," said cornerback Josh Okoebor. "We knew he wanted this game bad, and I feel real disappointed that we let him down because we really could have won. He's intense every week, but you could tell he had that extra oomph for this one."
Afterward, Willingham hugged a few of his former players at midfield, including quarterback Brady Quinn.
But the pleasantries didn't last long, more subdued than the receiving line that greeted former coach Rick Neuheisel when he beat his former Colorado team here in 1999. Willingham quickly turned from conversing with his former players to consoling Stanback and James.
"It's nice to know they remember you," Willingham said. "It's great to see them. But I like to compete. You want to beat those guys. That's what it's all about. Because it's Notre Dame and I was let go there, I'm jumping off the roof? No. You don't get caught up in that. A pro doesn't. And I think I'm a pro."
Instead, he was unhappy about UW's blown opportunities.
The Huskies devised a game plan that called for throwing deep against a Notre Dame secondary that Willingham watched get beat often a year ago.
"We had an advantage there," Willingham said after the Huskies finished with 408 yards passing.
Stanback came out firing and led UW 82 yards on the first drive of the game. But Chambers fumbled at the 1 after catching an 11-yard pass, a call that was upheld after an official's review.
The Husky defense bent often early, but didn't break, holding Notre Dame to just a field goal in the first quarter. A costly holding penalty on their down against UW's defense helped Notre Dame take a 9-3 lead in the second quarter, but the Huskies responded by driving to Notre Dame's 6-yard line, thanks to a 69-yard Stanback pass to Marlon Wood.
Stanback scrambled, then made his one mistake of the day, an off-target throw into the end zone that was intercepted by Notre Dame's Ambrose Wooden.
"I just feel we are so close yet so far away," said Washington center Brad Vanneman. "There were so many opportunities in that game to make it a close game."
Another came with Washington trailing only 12-3 midway through the third quarter, a score kept close thanks to some gutty defense — UW stopped Notre Dame on two fourth downs early in the quarter. Following the second fourth-down stop, the Huskies drove to Notre Dame's 34. But on first down, James fumbled and Notre Dame recovered.
"It's kind of hard, kind of deflating, to know you should have scored, to know you could be up, and you've got to go back out there on defense," Okoebor said. "But you've got to dig deep and get the ball back."
This time, though, the Huskies didn't, as Notre Dame quickly drove for a touchdown to take command. The Huskies went three-and-out on their next two possessions, the Irish countered with a field goal and a TD, and the rout was on. The Irish finished with 560 yards, the fourth-most ever by an opponent at Husky Stadium.
But Willingham left undeterred.
He refused to say there was any moral victory in keeping the game more competitive than many figured.
But he also said he felt no wistfulness at seeing the team he essentially built handle the team he must now rebuild.
"I relinquished that when they kicked me out of that job," he said. "Everything they are doing is what that staff has done. But we are going to be a good football team. There are some great recruits to add to it. We are going to be pretty special. But you have to make plays. You can't keep singing the same chorus. We've got to get it done. That's what it's all about."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com
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