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Originally published Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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UW Football | Isaiah Stanback injury was turning point

Exactly two years ago this week, against the same Oregon State Beavers who will visit Husky Stadium on Saturday, quarterback Isaiah Stanback planted his right foot in the ground trying to convert a third-and-26 early in the fourth quarter and felt it explode beneath him. The Lisfranc injury he suffered not only blew up his senior season, but also what might have been the best chance Tyrone Willingham had of making a success of his coaching tenure at Washington.

Seattle Times staff reporter; Seattle Times staff reporter

Ty turning points

Besides a loss to Oregon State in 2006 when Isaiah Stanback was injured, here are five other critical games in coach Tyrone Willingham's UW tenure.

Oct. 1, 2005: UCLA 21, UW 17. Huskies led 17-7 heading into the fourth quarter and appeared ready to give Willingham a signature victory in his first season. But emblematic of fourth-quarter problems that have plagued all of Willingham's UW teams, the Bruins rallied to win. The game was the second of a six-game losing streak that doomed the 2005 season.

Nov. 19, 2005: WSU 26, UW 22. A week after getting his first Pac-10 win at Washington, Willingham watched the Huskies blow another late lead as the Cougars scored the winning TD with 1:20 left, robbing UW of a possible two-game winning streak and a momentum boost heading into the offseason.

Nov. 11, 2006: Stanford 20, UW 3. The Huskies needed a win to keep hope of a bowl game alive. Instead, seemingly disheartened by the "Suddenly Senior" controversy of earlier in the week, UW lost as a 19-point favorite to a Stanford team that hadn't won a game all season. A 4-1 start turned into a 5-7 finish.

Oct. 13, 2007: Arizona State 44, UW 20. Fresh off a bye week and a closer-than-expected loss to USC, the Huskies raised some hopes by jumping out to a 17-13 halftime lead. But ASU outscored UW 31-3 in the second half. It was Washington's fourth straight loss and one that raised the ire of many fans. Two days after this game athletic director Todd Turner felt compelled to defend Willingham to the media, further angering some fans by saying that one of UW's biggest challenges is "to try to field teams that look like Southern Cal or Cal or Oregon or Ohio State."

Nov. 24, 2007: WSU 42, UW 35. Huskies came in having won two of their past three games, appearing poised to end the season on a little roll. They took an early 17-7 lead, but another fourth-quarter collapse proved disastrous. When UW lost the next week at Hawaii, the stage was set for a win-or-else 2008.

Bob Condotta

Reminders of the day it all changed are never far away for Isaiah Stanback.

Two years ago this week, against the same Oregon State Beavers who will visit Husky Stadium on Saturday, Stanback planted his right foot in the ground trying to convert a third-and-26 early in the fourth quarter and felt it explode beneath him.

"It's still sore after workouts, depending on how strenuous they are," Stanback said last week in a phone interview from Dallas, where he is in his second year with the Cowboys, trying to forge an NFL career as a receiver. "I have to wear arch supports and be a lot more cautious about the type of shoes I wear. But I'm healthy enough. I can do all the things I need to do."

The Lisfranc injury he suffered not only blew up his senior season, but also what might have been the best chance Tyrone Willingham had of making a success of his coaching tenure at Washington, which seems destined to end in failure sometime in the next two months.

In fact, of all the Saturdays that might have ultimately doomed Willingham at UW, the 2006 Oregon State game looms among the largest.

With Stanback playing well in his senior season, the Huskies were 4-2 at the time of the OSU game, harboring legitimate hopes of making their first bowl game since 2002.

And who knows what might have happened had Willingham been able to lead UW to a bowl in his second season?

"A bowl game changes a whole lot of things as far as the situation," says Stanback. "It would have definitely helped build confidence with the program, confidence with the team, confidence with the boosters who support you, and it might help you get players in there that you might not have gotten otherwise."

Instead, UW lost its next four games after Stanback was injured, and the program has never really recovered. It's 5-19 since that day, 3-15 in Pac-10 games.

"I think things definitely would have been different if Isaiah hadn't gotten hurt," said cornerback Roy Lewis, now on the practice squad with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I think with Isaiah we would have done a lot of good things. We would have had a really, really good season."

Carl Bonnell took over, but he struggled to stay healthy, suffering a shoulder injury in the first post-Stanback game, an overtime loss at California.

"We were really rolling," said UW offensive coordinator Tim Lappano. "We looked like an offense that was going to be hard to deal with, him becoming better in the short passing game and what he created out on the perimeter. He was scary."

Indeed, some were calling Stanback the favorite for Pac-10 player of the year honors heading into that game with OSU. The Huskies had beaten UCLA and Arizona to start the Pac-10 season in 2006 — two of only six conference wins for Willingham — before losing in controversial fashion at USC when the clock ran out before UW could snap the ball after driving to the Trojans' 15.

Still, the close defeat to USC seemed to provide more evidence that Willingham's rebuilding project at UW was finally taking hold.

Washington was favored by nine that day against an OSU team that entered the game 2-3, having lost at home the previous week to Washington State. When the Huskies jumped out to a 17-10 lead in the second quarter, UW appeared on the way to a win that would signal the continuing resurgence of UW, and the decline of the Beavers.

But OSU took control in the second half, leading 27-17 going into the fourth quarter.

Then came the injury to Stanback.

"I just planted wrong trying to get the first down," said Stanback, who got 23 yards on the play that came with just more than 10 minutes left. He said it took 15 months before he really felt confident again in the foot.

The game also proved pivotal for the Beavers, who are 20-7 since the day.

"We were really, really down a couple of years ago and won a big, tough game up there," said OSU coach Mike Riley.

He added, "So to get that win on the road against the Huskies at that time with that team might have been a turnaround game for us."

And a turnaround missed for the Huskies.

Notes

• Willingham met with the media earlier than usual Wednesday to make way for basketball media day and said he had not yet gotten a report on Jake Locker's meeting with a hand specialist. But he said he didn't anticipate anything that would decrease the amount of time Locker could be sidelined. It's possible Locker is done for the year.

• Willingham said he didn't know the specifics of guard Casey Bulyca's knee surgery but that there is a good chance Bulyca is done for the season.

• RB David Freeman was not in pads for practice, indicating he is unlikely to play this week.

• TE Kavario Middleton was back in pads Wednesday, having missed Tuesday's practice to have a wisdom tooth pulled.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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