Coaches' notes - Fresno State

Tyrone Willingham (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

Before any reporter could ask Tyrone Willingham a question, he already had a question for himself; what does it feel like to get the win? Well, Willingham said to himself - winning feels good and he was excited about the effort of his team in their 21-20 triumph over Fresno State.

Willingham said that the key play - a blocked PAT by defensive end Caesar Rayford - was the result of something the coaches saw earlier in the week game-planning. "We tailored our scheme a little," he said after the win, noting that the 6-7 Rayford had not been used by this staff yet to block kicks, but it was the 'low snap' they saw on film that tipped them off that they could come away with a stuff.

Washington Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer and Defensive Line Coach Randy Hart sat down and looked at some of Fresno State's PAT schemes earlier in the week and found something. "We thought we had found a weakness, so we just put in a simple, little scheme," Baer said. "It wasn't anything genius, it was just part of coaching, looking at it as a staff and doing our best."

Asked whether or not it was kind of neat to see a guy who isn't in the depth like Rayford - currently playing behind Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Greyson Gunheim, Brandon Ala and Chris Stevens in the depth at DE - make such a huge play, Willingham said that Rayford is a really hard worker and for him to come up big was 'wonderful'. He also acknowledged the work of linebacker Kyle Trew, who came in to spell E.J. Savannah when he went out with a hand injury. "Kyle stepped in and kept us solid," Willingham said of the junior from Edmonds, Wash.

Asked whether or not his quarterback, Isaiah Stanback, would come back in a big way after the 37-20 loss to Oklahoma on the road, Willingham never had a doubt. "I felt confident that Isaiah would bounce back," Willingham said. "He's a competitor."

Stanback finished the day 15-26 for 151 yards and two touchdowns, but almost more importantly - no interceptions. He also led the team with 91 yards on the ground on 12 carries. "He executed the fundamental law of being a quarterback - you take what's being given," Willingham added. "I remind him about it every day."

Stanback's 35-yard run was the stuff of wonder - splitting the Fresno State defense, juking defenders left and right - but it wasn't enough to 'wow' Willingham. "He hasn't wowed coach yet," Willingham said with a chuckle.

But his defense was a different matter. The Fresno State Bulldogs came out and just ran roughshod over the Huskies, scoring on a 75-yard drive in 3:39. So what was the problem? "Tackling," Willingham said, matter-of-factly. "Make no mistake, that back (Dwayne Wright) was a load. He made it difficult for our guys to get a good pop on him.

Wright ended up with 136 yards on 28 carries. "He just wanted to pour it right at you, he's a heck of a back," said Baer. "I tip my hat to them, but we're better than that. We had people in the right spots, but he just ran over us. I didn't see any big holes very often."

"They have one of the better offensive lines. Their center is one of the better ones in the country and he's big. He's around 330 pounds. You usually don't see a center that big. But we knew their offensive line was going to be good; it's the strength of their team and the reason why their back gets yards."

In the second half, the Bulldogs did the exact same thing, scoring a touchdown on their first series from scrimmage. The difference this time was that the Huskies were hitting and supporting on the run, forcing Fresno State QB Tom Brandstater to throw.

"I told our guys that we gave up 80-some yards rushing in the first half and that's not us. It needs to be under 50 and a lot of it is missed tackles. And part of it is because that back (Wright) is so strong and he has a low pad level and he wants to hurt you. We knew that coming in, and I just don't think we stepped up to the challenge."

"C.J. Wallace made a bunch of hits," said Willingham of the senior safety from Sacramento. Wallace made an astounding 17 tackles on the day.

"The best part about it was that we played four quarters," Baer added. "And I think it's the first time in three games that we can say that...four full quarters. That was the best part of it."

The defense was motivated by a number of things, but a big part of their heart was missing on Saturday. Dan Howell's father died unexpectedly this past week, and Howell went home to Newhall, Calif. to be with his family. The funeral was today. "It was tough not having him around," Baer said. "I thought the guys stepped up and did what they had to do. There were some heavy hearts on that football team, and hopefully they played a little harder for him today. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family."

Willingham did something a little different at the beginning of the second half. He had his offense run a couple of plays quick, to try and get them going a little bit. 'But I'm not sure it worked because they (Fresno State) went right back down and scored. So I think we're going to trash that.

But one thing that always seems to work when they have numbers is the fans. Even though only 57,012 were quoted as paid, they made a lot of noise. And Willingham knew it. "I was excited to hear them make a difference," he said. "It reminded me of the times I used to bring teams into Husky Stadium. This should be one of the toughest places to play in the country just because of our fans."

"I didn't get a chance to really notice the crowd too much because I was in the box, but I felt the energy from the team and I hope they build on it, because that was a good game to watch," Baer added.

The receivers were a big part of this game, although I doubt in the way they would want to be. Despite making some very big plays that helped to determine the outcome of the game, there were just as many balls left on the Husky Stadium field turf that they'd like to have back.

"They were just being more aggressive than they needed to be," Willingham said. "We encourage them to always make the catch first."

"Every drop we had, we 'popped'," added Offensive Coordinator Tim Lappano. "We wanted to get up the field and gain some yardage after the catch, and we need to tuck it away and then run. That's what happened on every one of those things, but that's correctable."

The receivers became even more paramount as the game was winding down, especially due to the fact that Fresno was pinching all their defenders inside. "We didn't knock them off the ball, and that's the bottom line," Lappano said. "It was wadded up in there, and I wasn't going to stay stubborn. They wanted us to throw the football, they didn't think we were good enough to do that, and Isaiah proved them wrong."

"We needed to be physical with them," Willingham said of the nature of how the game was taking place in the trenches. "And I think we went toe-to-toe with them."

"It was hard when you can't run the football," Lappano said. Kenny James and Louis Rankin - the two top running backs for Washington - accounted for 16 yards on 10 total carries. "But we were able to spread 'em out a little bit, throw the ball around and find the open seams in their zones. That's how me moved the football. And that was their plan. They were going to play everybody down and make us throw the football. We knew that. We had some new wrinkles in there too and we executed OK; we just dropped too many balls."

Willingham talked about how important it was that his team put in a 'winning effort' this week in practice. "This week of practice is the best three days in a row that we've had," he said. Perhaps it was no more evident in the play of the defensive backs, who held Fresno State QB Tom Brandstater to 11-21 passing for 140 yards and a late interception to nickel back Mesphin Forrester.

"That's huge for Mesphin," Baer said. "But I don't know if it's anything like redemption. We're better than that. The key is making sure everyone stays healthy and getting people in the right spots. For the most part I was pleased with the way we played back there."

It's been three years since Washington has been 2-1, the end of Willingham's 'first quarter' of the 12-game season. When asked what it felt like, Willingham's only response?

"It's the next best thing to being 3-0."

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