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2008: A Breakdown

Years before Jimmy Lake, there was another, equally as epic meltdown...

NCAA Football: Washington at California Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We are coming up on a 15th anniversary that most recruits and younger fans don’t remember. And if you’re a Husky fan who does remember that year, chances are it’s one you’d probably want to forget. It’s time to take a look back at the Huskies’ famed 0-12 season! Throughout some of this piece, looking at all the futility on the field and going back and poring through the stats, I asked myself why I was doing this. Simply stated: Those who forget their history, are often doomed to repeat it! Let us take a look back at the dumpster fire that was the 2008 season, and hopefully learn a little something, about the program and maybe about ourselves, along the way.

2008 was a low water mark for Husky football, and that’s putting it rather charitably. Since the 12-game season was standardized in 2006, 27 teams have gone winless. 11 of those, however, came in the pandemic season of 2020, so that leaves 16 teams that have gone winless in a standard season. Washington was the third team to lose all of their games since the standardization and the first, and so far the only team on the West Coast to do so.

It completed the backslide of the football program which started, arguably, with the resignation of legendary head coach Don James before the 1993 season. Jim Lambright, Rick Neuheisel, and Keith Gilbertson couldn’t replicate Don James’ success, and on December 13th, 2004, former Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham was hired to rehabilitate the struggling football program, which was marred by off-the-field issues as well as poor play on the field, posting a 1-10 record the previous year.

The Setup

Willingham’s tenure up to the 2008 season was unimpressive, with an 11-25 record in the three seasons prior. Though he had some talent on his teams, the team could never produce many wins, for a variety of reasons. One was that the top of the PAC 10 (as it was at the time) was incredibly talented, with USC and Oregon the powerhouses at the top of the conference. Beyond that, Oregon State and Arizona State finished ranked in the Top-25 at the end of 2007. Additionally, in 2007, the Huskies were okay on offense, averaging 29.2 points per contest, but they were less okay on defense, giving up 31.7 points per game, 92nd out of 119 FBS teams. Bleacher Report (for what it’s worth) picked UW to finish ninth in the conference in 2008 behind WSU. They cited the fact that Locker returned behind an improved offensive line, as well as a porous defense, as justification for that prediction. And to be honest, that was a fair prediction, all things considered. You’ve got Locker back, and he’s a good enough quarterback to at least carry his team to a few victories, so why not?

What’s the worst that could happen? Well, dear reader, strap in, because we’re revisiting what rock bottom looks like!

The Season

On August 30, 2008, the Dawgs traveled to Eugene to take on the Ducks. The rivalry during this era, if you remember, was lopsided in Oregon’s direction. From 2004-2007, Oregon beat Washington soundly in every game the two teams played, with Washington losing each game by at least 21 points. 2008 was no different, with the Huskies losing 44-10 to start the year.

Washington couldn’t run the ball, rushing 43 times for 95 yards. I say this as if their passing was any better, which it was not, going 17-35 for 147 yards split between Locker and Ronnie Fouch. This loss being early in the season, could be chalked up to an improved Duck defense, and according to ESPN, Oregon’s defensive coordinator could hardly contain his delight in reading the Huskies’ offensive stats, with 95 yards rushing and only 242 total yards. It admittedly was only one game, and the Huskies had lost to Oregon plenty of times before that, so it’s one of those where you shake it off and move forward!

The next game was no better for the Huskies, playing the BYU Cougars, who were ranked 15th under 4th year head coach Bronco Mendenhall. For a while, the Dawgs kept pace with a Cougar squad that featured a bevy of future NFL talent including tight end Dennis Pitta, and receiver Austin Collie, down 28-21 with 3:31 left in the 4th quarter. Of course, if you’re a long time Dawg fan, you know what happens next. Jake Locker scores, throws the ball up in the air, gets a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and the resulting extra point is blocked, finalizing the score at 28-27 BYU.

The FSN announcers, fans, and players were all in disagreement of the call, which according to lead play-by-play announcer Barry Tompkins was “purely in the hands of the officials”. The officials stated after the game that by rule, when a player throws a ball into the air, they are required to throw a flag and make the call they did. So, an unlucky break ruined any momentum the Dawgs might’ve been able to capitalize on, but, surely things would get better, right?

Unfortunately for the Huskies, they did not. The next game was against the vaunted Oklahoma Sooners, ranked at #3 and on their way to an appearance in that year’s National Championship game. They were led by eventual Heisman winner Sam Bradford, who went an astounding 18/21 throwing the ball for 304 yards and 5 scores, rushing for 1 additional touchdown in a 55-14 steamrolling of the Huskies. The Dawgs themselves lost three fumbles, missed two field goals and punted three times in the first half. A dreadful offensive showing to be sure, but this was against the #3 team in the country. Stanford wasn’t Oklahoma, this was year 2 of Jim Harbaugh, and he was still getting his guys in. We get a few stops, then maybe we can pull out a win, right?

I’m always and forever an optimist, and if this season illustrates anything, it’s how hard it actually is to go 0-12. It’s almost the same as going undefeated, you need a lot of luck! Except in this case, it was bad luck! The cruelest example of this has to be in the Stanford game. While making a block on a reverse, Jake Locker injured his right thumb, staying in for a few plays before ultimately going to the locker room. He returned after halftime in sweats and his hand wrapped up. Ronnie Fouch came in and played decently well, going 13/27 for 186 yards and a passing touchdown to cut the Stanford lead down to 28-21 in the third quarter, but other injuries meant that the Huskies were overmatched, and with Locker being out for the rest of the year, the season rested on Ronnie Fouch. Willingham stated after the game in his press availability that “everyone is frustrated”. It was UW’s second 0-4 start since Keith Gilbertson’s team did so in 2004, but at least that team won a single game.

The next 5 games were the bottom of the barrel for the Dawgs.

  • A 48-14 loss to Arizona in which then AD Scott Woodward reiterated his decision not to fire coach Willingham until the end of the year.
  • A 34-13 loss to Oregon State where the Rodgers brothers ran roughshod against an overmatched Husky defense.
  • A 33-7 drubbing at the hands of Notre Dame that had future Seahawk WR Golden Tate openly admitting that they took it easy on the Huskies after being up 14-0.
  • A 56-0 thrashing by USC where QB Mark Sanchez was pulled after 3 quarters.
  • A 39-19 loss to Arizona State where Ronnie Fouch scored on a double pass from receiver Cody Bruns and the Huskies employed every trick in the book to drum up excitement on offense, including reverses and direct snaps.

Those were the worst of a brutal stretch of losses on the schedule, which resulted in the announcement that Willingham would be gone at the end of the year on October 28th and immediately, candidates for his replacement were announced. One such candidate was former Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin, who told ESPN’s Joe Schad that “the University of Washington is a great job”. Other candidates included Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who also served as an offensive coordinator under Don James for 11 seasons, Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christiansen, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Boise State coach Chris Petersen (lol), and eventual Seahawks coach Jim Mora Jr. But all that can wait for now. We still have 3 more games...

The UCLA game was weird all around. You had an already fired coach (Willingham), going up against a coach previously fired by UW (Rick Neuheisel) on an unseasonably dry and warm day. The weirdness however did not create opportunities for the Huskies, as they fell behind early, and stayed behind, losing 27-7 to the Bruins. The Huskies’ passing game was pitiful, with the Huskies only managing 39 total yards through the air, and only 135 yards total. Next up was the game. If you’re a Husky fan, you know what this game is. The 2008 Apple Cup! Now, affectionately nicknamed “the Crapple Cup”.

I was at the game the year before, in which the Huskies led the entire way, albeit narrowly, until the third quarter, then it went back and forth until the Cougars walked it off with 31 seconds left, winning 42-35. Of course, seeing as how I was only 8 years old at the time, I don’t remember it too well. This one though I remember pretty well, if only for the result. Let’s set the table!

The Cougars were similarly awful, in fact they were probably worse. Say what you want about the Huskies that year, they were bad. But at least they didn’t give up 60 points! The Cougars did so 4 SEPARATE TIMES, to Oregon State, USC, Cal, and Oregon. They gave up 50 or more points 2 additional times to Arizona and Stanford, giving up between 50-60 points 8 times. Their defensive stats were good for 118th in the country out of 119 FBS teams. Their one win came against Portland State, so to this point they had not won against FBS competition. Normally this is said as a joke, but in this game, the stoppable force met the extremely movable object. I’m going to actually watch this game, and see for myself how bad it is, in the name of research. I’ll link it below, but be warned, viewer discretion is advised.

This game, if I had to use a word, was boring. Extremely boring, in fact! No offense could get going, and that was less a product of good defense as it was absolutely horrid offense. Both sides had their excuses though: both the Cougars and Huskies were impacted by injuries, and in the case of the Huskies, a lame duck coach certainly doesn’t help matters. But COME ON!

In the fourth quarter, you’re left needing one first down to salt away the game, and you can’t even manage that? And allowing Jared Karstetter to catch a long bomb from Kevin Lopina (his only decent throw of the game, by the way) is inexcusable! The offense and defense couldn’t get going in the overtime periods, which only happened because 2 kickers missed 2 entirely makeable kicks!

The two relatively bright spots were quarterback Ronnie Fouch, turning in an efficient, if unremarkable statistical outing (11-16, 99 yards and an interception, which was early in the game), and running back Willie Griffin, rushing for 112 yards and the Huskies’ only touchdown of the afternoon. But all this doesn’t happen if Willingham goes for it on fourth down instead of punting from the Cougar 36-yard line. When asked after the game what he said to his players, beaten and downtrodden after the roughest season in program history, Coach Willingham kept it simple, saying “let’s go home.” The season essentially over, they had one more game to play the next week, then the coaching search would begin in earnest.

The Dawgs took the road trip to Berkeley hopelessly overmatched, as Cal leaned on their pair of future pro tailbacks in Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen. Best set the Cal rushing records for a single game, surpassing it in the middle of the third quarter, and finishing with 311 yards and 4 touchdowns. Players seemed defeated and angry as they suffered a final loss, 48-7, going 0-12 and losing their 14th straight game. Linebacker Mason Foster said that it was “appalling” to go 0-12, but he felt that whoever took over was going to turn it around. Cal coach Jeff Tedford felt bad for Willingham, stating “he’s always been a quality guy who cares about the game”. Willingham, meanwhile, seemed sarcastic in the face of his dismissal, saying of his replacement “We hope he is the greatest coach in America, and he comes in and has a whole lot of success.” The speculation by that point had turned up one name above the rest, but how did we get to this point?

The Search

Ever since this very blog reported on Willingham’s firing on October 27, 2008, various names had been floated, of varying quality before and since. On October 29th, UW Dawg Pound put out a list of coaches from both the Power 5 and Group of 5 levels, unemployed coaches and rising assistants. Names of note included Jim Mora Jr., Jeff Tedford, Les Miles, Mike Leach (!), Chris Petersen, Brian Kelly and California assistant Bob Gregory. By December 2nd, Leach was considered a frontrunner for the job by this site. Other names circulated included Phil Fulmer (!!) and Tommy Tuberville (!!!). Had that Tuberville hire happened they surely would’ve had to carry him out of Montlake in a pine box.

But, on December 4th, it was reported by ESPN that the Huskies had their guy, USC OC Steve Sarkisian. Sark had the pedigree, having coached Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart during his time as USC’s QB coach, spending some time with the Oakland Raiders in the same role in 2004, and helming an offense that averaged 37.5 points per game, good for 14th in the country in 2008. He benefitted from a stable of talent, including eventual first round pick Mark Sanchez at quarterback, as he guided the offense to a Rose Bowl win over Penn State to close out his USC tenure.

In spite of this pedigree, the hire was panned, even by our very blog. “This is indeed a very sad day for Washington football. You pass on (then Fresno State coach Pat) Hill and Leach for this guy? I just don’t know what to say!” Not exactly a vote of confidence! The consensus was that a program builder was needed, and Sark was unproven in that role. But, he had a reputation for quarterback development, and with time, and the talent already on the roster, the turnaround was fairly quick in 2009, with the Huskies finishing 5-7, then finishing the next year at 7-6 with a victory in the Holiday Bowl, 19-7 over Nebraska. Some felt that his coaching abilities stagnated in his final three seasons at the helm, earning him the derisive nickname “seven win Steve”. Whether deserved or not, that doesn’t change the fact that I and hopefully many other Dawg fans look on his tenure fondly, because of where the program was before.

Despite it all, 2008 was a year of growth for me. I no longer became disconsolate after every loss, because that would’ve been an awful lot of energy spent crying over a team that wouldn’t win a game. I learned to appreciate coaches and their culture, and I grew to appreciate the little nuances of football that much more, as things like scheme and why a play or an offense works came into focus for me. I think zero wins made me appreciate the wins that did come that next year, and I still hold that this team is the best 5-7 team of all time. That’s part of why I wanted to write this, the other part being the similarities the 2021 team shared with this one.

The coach was fired mid season (Willingham for performance, Lake for performance and misconduct issues) marred by poor coaching decisions and sour relations with the media. The woes of the offense were mostly the fault of the coaching staff (John Donavan and Tim Lappano) and the quarterbacks (Dylan Morris and Ronnie Fouch) were lambasted by fans for poor play, perhaps unfairly. Both finished well below expectations, with humiliating defeats in the Apple Cup, and as a result, the Dawgs went out and hired offensive minded coaches (Sarkisian, and Kalen Deboer) to clean things up, and as a result showing massive improvement (Sark went 5-7 in 2009 and Deboer of course went 11-2 in 2022). Both instances show the humbling power of losses, irritating as it may be. It has been almost exactly 30 years since Don James resigned from the program in protest in 1993, 15 years since the 2008 season, and 2 years into the Kalen Deboer era, I still think about this 2008 team often. This team is living proof that no matter how bad it may be, there’s a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.