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And in that corner... the Washington Huskies

Notre Dame’s game with Washington this Saturday got infinitely more interesting when the Huskies pulled off the upset of this young season and beat the USC Trojans in Husky Stadium. Steve Sarkisian’s victory over his mentor Pete Carroll marked a remarkable turnaround from the winless Husky’s of a season before.

Nobody follows the Washington program closer than the Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta. The award-winning writer was kind enough to trade a few emails with me as I tried to get a closer glimspe to the program that’s made quite a turnaround.

Inside the Irish: Having been around the program, what’s been the difference between Willingham’s Huskies and Sarkisian’s Huskies?

Bob Condotta: Just about everything. The most notable to outsiders are their approaches to public relations --- Willingham closed practices to media and most fans while Sarkisian immediately re-opened them during the spring and fall camp to just about anyone who wanted to come, which got a lot of people enthused about the program again. Players seemed to like the new approach, as well. Sarkisian is a young, energetic guy who seems genuinely excited to have this chance. Willingham, some thought, may not have had the passion for it anymore by the time he got here. The words you hear over and over again from those who watch practice are energy, tempo and enthusiasm, and you’ve seen that in the way the team has played, especially the first three games.

ITI: How do Husky fans view Ty Willingham the man and Ty Willingham the coach? Is there a resentment against him like the one that exists among Notre Dame fans?

BC: He had definitely worn out his welcome by the time he was fired. I think many fans appreciated much of what he stood for --- after having had some troubles with the NCAA, many thought a guy with a reputation’s like Willingham’s was needed to “clean up the program’’ so to speak. Whether he really did that is a subject for debate. But Willingham did talk about doing things the right way, and many fans appreciated that early on and still respected that approach even once it became apparent it wasn’t working on the field. He hurt his image a bit with the way the last year went --- he seemed to imply often that the talent wasn’t very good and that UW was “downtrodden’’ when he took it over. But I don’t think the resentment against him is quite what it is at Notre Dame, maybe because by the time he was fired it was so evident that change was needed that there was never really the heated debate about it the way there was at Notre Dame.

ITI: As someone who has seen Jake Locker throughout his time in college, what do you think of him as a player and as a leader. Are all the superlatives true? What does he have to do to become a complete player?

BC: One of the key things to keep in mind on Locker is that he has still started just 20 games in his career --- it has taken a lot of QBs longer than that to really come into their own. And I think any fair judgment of his career would keep in mind that he was pretty darn good as a freshman --- he was named the conference’s freshman of the year by the coaches and set a record for rushing yards by a QB. The talent has always been evident. Some have questioned his leadership since the team hasn’t won much during his time, but I think the last drive against USC answered most of those. The biggest issue about him has always been his passing accuracy. He remains a work in progress there, as the game against Stanford showed. But he has improved immensely in that area as evidenced by the 60 percent completion percentage in the first three games.

ITI: Can you maybe tell us about some of the other people the Irish should be worried about?

BC: On offense, a couple of real early standouts have been redshirt freshman Chris Polk, whose play has been better than his numbers might indicate --- he has run really hard and picked up lots of yards after contact; and true freshman WR James Johnson, who caught TDs in each of the first two games and played beyond his years in emerging as Locker’s most dependable target.

On defense, the best player so far has been MLB Donald Butler, who had a monster game against USC. Another really solid player is DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, a senior who has been bottled up at times this season as opponents focus on him, but who is the team’s most consistent player up front. Another name people may recognize is freshman CB Desmond Trufant, who is the younger brother of Marcus Trufant of the Seattle Seahawks.

ITI: What needs to happen for the Huskies to win on Saturday?

BC: The Huskies have to play a lot better on both lines. They were exposed quite a bit there against Stanford, especially on defense where they have some young players who really had trouble holding up against the Cardinal’s physical play. They also have to figure out a way to get a consistent running game going.

Locker has to play better than he did --- he threw two interceptions against Stanford that really turned the game.

And the special teams has to be better as UW allowed an opening kickoff return against Stanford and had poor field position all game.

UW also simply has to not be intimidated by the environment. UW has a lot of young players and hasn’t won a road game in almost two years, so they have to forget about where they are and just go play.

To check out more of Bob’s writing, check out his Husky Football Blog at the Seattle Times.