Going into the season, it was common knowledge Washington had to reach a bowl or Willingham would be out as coach.
That's a reasonable demand for a well-paid coach in his fourth year on the job. But Willingham had to feel the odds were stacked against him. He had a young team that has had as many as 11 freshmen and sophomores in the starting lineup. He faced a schedule that opened with a road trip to Oregon followed by games against BYU and Oklahoma. And he had to do it without linebacker E.J. Savannah, the Huskies' leading tackler in 2007, who was declared academically ineligible in August.
Then, the Huskies' bid to upset BYU was thwarted when star quarterback Jake Locker flipped the football skyward after scoring a potential game-tying touchdown and was penalized for excessive celebration. A 15-yard penalty forced a long extra-point attempt that was blocked, and the Huskies fell 28-27.
Then, in the fourth game of the season, Locker broke his right thumb midway through the second quarter of a 35-28 loss to Stanford. Without Locker, Washington's best player, the Huskies had no chance.
Neither did Willingham, who was told this week he wouldn't return. Willingham is 11-32 in three-plus seasons in Seattle.
Yet, Willingham refused to look back and lament his luck or question his decisions. Instead, he's intent on finishing the season as successfully as possible, starting Saturday at USC.
"Right now is not the time for me to be looking back," Willingham said this week. "We've got five football games to go, and we're playing the best team in the country – in our opinion – so we better be looking face forward. If not, we've got problems."
Washington has problems, all right. And few would seem bigger than USC.
The Trojans lead the nation in total defense and scoring defense. USC has allowed 10 or fewer points in six of its seven games. Meanwhile, Washington hasn't managed more than 14 points in a game since Locker was injured.
Any struggling young team would be in trouble against USC. A team that just lost its coach may be in more trouble. Will they be focused? Will they be intense? Do they just want the season to mercifully come to an end?
"There is so much we don't know," Willingham said. "It would be wonderful if I could tell what all our players – or the majority of them – are thinking. Hopefully, when all is said and done, I will set an example for them to embrace challenge and don't back down; to give our best and move forward.
"That will be my approach, and hopefully they will follow my example and be more intense. Hopefully, our guys will look at (me) and say, 'Coach didn't give up on us. He stayed with us. He's going to go forward and we will do the same.' "
Oregon running backs vs. California defense. Whether Oregon or California keeps pace in the Pac-10 championship race will be dependent on how well the Ducks run. Behind RBs LaGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon averages 278.8 rushing yards per game to lead the Pac-10. Meanwhile, California is second only to USC in rushing defense, allowing just 95.7 yards per game. The Bears have allowed just one opposing running back to reach 100 yards. Some key numbers: In each of Cal's two losses, it allowed at least 141 rushing yards. Oregon was held to 60 rushing yards in its loss to USC on Oct. 4.
Player to watch
Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter. The Sun Devils are mired in a five-game losing streak. During that skid, Carpenter – who has been hobbled by an ankle injury – has passed for less than 200 yards three times and has thrown six interceptions and five touchdown passes. Carpenter needs to be productive for Arizona State to have a chance to break out of its slump. That won't be easy against Oregon State, which is third in the Pac-10 in pass defense.
Arizona punter Keenyn Crier averaged 50.3 yards on seven punts last week against USC and had four punts downed inside the Trojans' 20. For the season, he ranks second in the Pac-10 with a 44.7-yard average and has had 11 kicks that covered more than 50 yards. … The Rodgers brothers of Oregon State certainly are hot. Two weeks ago, flanker James Rodgers, a sophomore, scored on touchdown runs of 52 and 55 yards and caught a 33-yard touchdown pass in a victory over Washington. Meanwhile, younger brother Jacquizz Rodgers, a freshman, continues to lead the Pac-10 in rushing with 116 yards per game. No freshman has led the Pac-10 in rushing. … Stanford RB Toby Gerhart has posted three consecutive 100-yard performances and now has 779 rushing yards. He's on pace to become the Cardinal's first 1,000-yard rusher since 1991, when Tommy Vardell gained a school-record 1,084 yards. … USC has allowed 20 points in the past four games combined. The Trojans have allowed just 57 points all season and lead the nation in scoring defense.
Despite beating Arizona, USC's national championship hopes cooled considerably. The Trojans are fifth in the BCS standings, but three unbeaten teams – Texas, Alabama and Penn State – remain ahead of them, as do one-loss Oklahoma. One-loss teams Florida and Georgia have big games upcoming and conceivably could jump the Trojans. … Arizona State has committed 10 turnovers in the past three games. The Sun Devils have lost at least three turnovers in every game in that span. … Washington State has allowed 60 points in back-to-back games and has surrendered 60 four times this season. … Washington is allowing opponents to convert 58.1 percent of their third downs. … Arizona QB Willie Tuitama has thrown just two touchdown passes in the past three games. … UCLA's rushing attack has produced only 165 yards total in the past three games.
What they're saying
"Hopefully, it eliminates some of the outside negativity that's been surrounding myself and the program." – Washington's Willingham on the announcement that he will not return next season.
"Rudy Carpenter is the Brett Favre of college football. He has just been around a long time and makes a ton of plays." – Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose team faces Carpenter and Arizona State this week.
"My body feels a lot better. All the bumps and bruises are healed up from my hands, all the scabs and everything are healed." – Stanford's Gerhart on the value of an open week.
Arizona WR Mike Thomas now has a school-record 233 career receptions. He's fourth on the Pac-10 career list. … California leads the Pac-10 with 15 interceptions, which is five more than the Bears managed last season. … Oregon QB Justin Roper – who began the season as the starter – is back from injury and available to replace Jeremiah Masoli. … USC QB Mark Sanchez has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game he has started in his career. … Arizona State WR Kyle Williams (concussion) is questionable for Saturday's game against Oregon State. … Speaking of Oregon State, the Beavers are considering a rotation at offensive tackle to get Tavita Thompson into the game. Thompson, a former starter, is back from a one-year suspension invoked by the NCAA after he took diet pills that included a banned substance. … Stanford WR Richard Sherman, who had knee surgery three weeks ago, will not return this season. ... UCLA QB Ben Olson, who broke his right foot in April, has been cleared to return to practice. … USC DT Averell Spicer (sprained ankle) is not expected to play Saturday against Washington.