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September 9, 2008

Willingham still under plenty of pressure

RELATED: BYU 28, Washington 27 | Box score | Recap | More photos

SEATTLE Things are unfolding exactly as many people thought for Washington. And that's not a good thing for coach Tyrone Willingham.

The Huskies are 0-2 after Saturday's gut-wrenching 28-27 home loss to BYU. That followed a season-opening 44-10 shellacking at Oregon. Up next: a visit from Oklahoma. And that likely means Washington will be 0-3.

It's hard to argue that any school will have opened the season with three more difficult games than Washington. But there's hope that Washington can upset the mighty Sooners. After an abysmal effort in Eugene, the Huskies played with pluck and heart in the BYU loss, only to see a valiant effort ruined by a controversial officiating call at the end of the game.

Washington was in place to send the game into overtime after quarterback Jake Locker scored with two seconds left. But Locker was called for excessive celebration after he tossed the ball in the air after lunging into the end zone. That forced Washington to kick the potential game-tying extra point from the 25-yard line instead of the 10. The PAT attempt was blocked.

"It's unfortunate, but it's one that they almost have to call," Willingham said afterward. "It really should be a no-call, but it's one that they have to call when they see it."

Was Locker taunting or unsportsmanlike in his celebration? No. Did the call need to be made? No. But, it was whistled, just as it is outlined in black-and-white in the rule book. Still, despite the apparent injustice in the penalty, Washington still could have booted the extra point which amounted to a 35-yard field goal and forced overtime. But BYU was the team that made the key play at crunch time. Credit the Cougars; don't blame the refs.

It's almost fitting that Washington lost in a zany manner. It really shouldn't be any other way for Willingham, who has endured a tumultuous three-plus-year tenure in Seattle that has seen him unable to get the program over the hump or even halfway up the hill, for that matter.

Willingham entered 2008 with an 11-25 record (6-20 in the Pac-10), never finishing higher than ninth in the league. He has teased and tantalized before. In 2006, he got the Huskies off to a 4-1 start. But Washington lost its last six after quarterback Isaiah Stanback was lost to a season-ending foot injury vs. Oregon State. To date, that 2006 season has been Willingham's best - the Huskies finished 5-7 overall and 3-6 in league play.

It's understood that now is the time. The era of the five-year building project is over. Results are needed now. Actually, they were needed yesterday. That's why Willingham is in a position where he has to take the Huskies to a bowl or else.

Willingham almost didn't return this season. There was a well-publicized report that one booster offered $100,000 to the university if it would get rid of Willingham after last season. But Willingham met with Washington president Mark Emmert and bought himself time.

"Everyone connected to Husky football ... is disappointed with this season's record," Emmert said in a season-ending news conference in December. "No one is more disappointed than Coach Willingham himself. I believe Tyrone Willingham has the talent, character and drive to reach the level of success we all want for our program."

Willingham breathed a sigh of relief, but athletic director Todd Turner the guy who hired Willingham resigned under pressure. What's it mean? The hot-seat flames are fanning Willingham's fanny.

Willingham shook up his staff, bringing in new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Still, the spotlight is on Willingham now that the A.D. who hired him is gone and after Willingham has played the "make a big staff change" card.

That brings us to this question: When will Washington officials decide Willingham's fate?

We'll likely get an answer in the four games after the Oklahoma contest. That's when Washington will have exited the "make-or-break" portion of its schedule. After an off-week following the OU contest, the Huskies play four winnable games, with three at home: Stanford, at Arizona, Oregon State and Notre Dame.

At the worst, you figure Willingham needs to emerge from that stretch with a 3-1 record. That would make the Huskies 3-4, giving the program a bit of momentum as it heads into a challenging November that begins with a trip to USC and features home games against Arizona State and UCLA.

Go 2-2 or 1-3 in the four games after this Saturday's Oklahoma game, and Willingham likely should start searching for a realtor.

As it stands, Willingham's current deal expires at the end of the 2009 season, so something has to be done at some juncture this season because there is no way he can enter 2009 with one year left on his deal. There is no way to legitimately recruit with such a short contract unless you're Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden.

The reckoning hour is drawing near.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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