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Originally published Monday, September 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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UW Football | Jake Locker's injury adds to problems

As valuable as the quarterback is to the Huskies, Saturday's 35-28 home loss to Stanford showed that the team has much larger issues.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Word from Washington Sunday was that no official diagnosis would be made on how long Jake Locker will be out until he saw a hand specialist this morning.

Unofficially, the word is he likely will be sidelined six weeks or so after suffering a broken right thumb, meaning the keys to the offense will be turned over to redshirt freshman Ronnie Fouch.

Locker, who is right-handed, was hurt while throwing a block on a reverse for receiver Jordan Polk, appearing to hit his thumb on Stanford safety Sean Wiser. Huskies offensive coordinator Tim Lappano called the injury "a freak thing" and said Locker was hoping Polk could score a touchdown on the play.

But as valuable as Locker is to the Huskies, Saturday's 35-28 home loss to Stanford showed that the team has much larger issues.

For starters, there remains the uncertainty of the future of coach Tyrone Willingham, now 11-29 as UW's head coach, and 0-4 in his make-or-break fourth season.

Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said at his introductory news conference two weeks ago that he didn't favor in-season coaching changes as a general rule. He compared UW's situation to that at Louisiana State in 1999, when he worked with LSU president Mark Emmert, now president at UW, and the school made a late-season coaching change. There, the players were said to be basically in a mutiny against coach Gerry DiNardo, a situation not thought on the horizon here.

So Willingham is likely to get the season to try to reverse course, starting Saturday at Arizona, where UW has been installed as an 18-point underdog by the Las Vegas SportsLine against the suddenly high-flying Wildcats.

And while there will be much focus on Fouch's ability to replace Locker, the real key will be whether the Huskies can stop Arizona.

Even with Locker sitting out the final 2 ½ quarters against the Cardinal, the Huskies scored enough points to win a lot of games. But not with the kind of defense UW is playing right now.

The Huskies allowed 466 yards to Stanford, even though the Cardinal was without two of its best offensive players for most of the game — running back Toby Gerhart suffered a concussion on the second possession, and wide receiver Richard Sherman sat out entirely with a knee injury.

The subpar performance laid waste to the hope that the defense's sordid early start was due mostly to the schedule and a young team having to play ranked teams in Oregon, Brigham Young and Oklahoma right off the bat.

There were no such excuses against Stanford, which came in averaging just 272 yards, a reality that left first-year defensive coordinator Ed Donatell shaking his head.

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"I'm just very disappointed in the performance, from the standpoint that I just thought there were a lot of things left out there where we could have done things to help the team win the game," Donatell said. "I always start with myself. It's a group thing. I need to help them, and I haven't done that."

It was hoped that Donatell's presence would turn things around for a defense that was the worst in school history a year ago. He signed a two-year contract to replace the fired Kent Baer.

Instead, this year's team is worse in every way through four games, ranking 118th out of 119 teams overall, allowing 507 yards per game (last year's team allowed a school-record 446.4). Maybe most embarrassing, UW is the only team in the nation that still doesn't have a sack.

Donatell acknowledged the game was "a setback" for the defense, particularly as UW was coming off a bye in which it had spent a few practices doing live scrimmaging to improve fundamentals such as tackling.

Donatell has said all along he approached the job as a unique challenge. He reiterated again Saturday that "I do love challenges. Right now, you'd say, 'Hey, it's a little hairy. It ain't looking good.' But you always have your focus on how to get it better."

And the coaching staff has to hope that the players will continue to listen.

"I've said this before — I think a large majority of these kids are pretty good kids," said Lappano. "There is nothing else to do. We have to keep chopping wood, keep fighting, get the young kids better. Get them better every week. That's all we can do. No one is going to quit on them, and hopefully they don't quit on themselves and point fingers and separate. It's going to be our job to try to hold it together.

"But it hurts. They are frustrated, embarrassed. We are all embarrassed. This is difficult. I'm not going to lie. It's difficult for everybody. A nightmare."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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