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University of Washington Huskies Football

What to watch for in No. 20 Washington’s season opener against Montana

Washington cheerleaders and Harry, the Husky mascot, lead the team out of the tunnel at Husky Stadium for Washington’s home opener, an NCAA college football game against Montana, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

UW key players

• QB Dylan Morris: 60.9% completions, 897 passing yards, 4 pass TD, 3 INT, 2 rush TD (2020)

• RB Richard Newton: 122 rushing yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 2 TD (2020)

• LB Edefuan Ulofoshio: 47 tackles, 4 pass breakups, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack (2020)

• CB Trent McDuffie: 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble (2020)

Montana key players

• QB Cam Humphrey: 761 passing yards, 61% completions, 6 pass TD, 2 INT (2019)

• WR Sammy Akem: 59 catches, 848 receiving yards, 5 TD (2019)

• LB Jace Lewis: 131 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery (2019)

• S Robby Hauck: 129 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception (2019)

Stuffing the run

In UW’s final two games last fall, the Huskies allowed an average of 202.5 rushing yards per game and 4.94 yards per carry with five total rushing touchdowns against Utah and Stanford. It’s understandable, then, that rushing defense has been first-year UW defensive coordinator Bob Gregory’s primary emphasis this offseason. It’s also true that sixth-year outside linebacker Ryan Bowman missed both of those games, and interior defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa was also limited with an injury. But expect Gregory to employ a third defensive lineman – most often Faatui Tuitele – more often alongside Letuligasenoa and Sam “Taki” Taimani this fall. Of course, the Huskies shutting down a Montana offense without its top running back in injured All-American Marcus Knight won’t necessarily reveal whether this rush defense is improved. But if UW struggles in that department on Saturday, the Husky defense could be in for a long season.

Requesting wide receivers

We know what Washington’s offensive line is capable of, with the Huskies returning all five starters this fall. We know that the Husky running back room is stacked and Cade Otton is one of the country’s premier tight ends. We think we know quarterback Dylan Morris is an improving second-year starter who will efficiently run the offense and avoid mistakes. But what about the wide receivers? Terrell Bynum, Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, Taj Davis, Ja’Lynn Polk and Giles Jackson are all capable of making a significant impact this season. But in an offense that has not had a wide receiver post 1,000 yards or 10 touchdowns since John Ross in 2016, it’s up to the players at that position to prove their worth – starting on Saturday. Theoretically, Washington’s wideouts should be able to feast on the Griz secondary, but games aren’t played on paper.

Special teams strides

To put it plainly, Washington’s special teams were subpar last season. The Huskies ranked 124th nationally in opponent punt returns (21.33 yards per return) and 116th in opponent kick returns (25.54 yards per return), while Tim Horn recorded a touchback on just 24% of his kickoffs. Kicker Peyton Henry converted 6 of 9 field-goal attempts but was just 1 for 3 from beyond 40 yards, while missing an extra point as well. In his first season as special teams coordinator, running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said in August, “I’m excited for the talent we do have on this team, where we should be a dominant force on special teams this season.” The Huskies certainly have options in the return game – where Giles Jackson, Trent McDuffie, Kyler Gordon and Rome Odunze could all conceivably make an impact. But pay close attention to UW’s coverage units on Saturday.

Vorel’s prediction

I know, I know, Bobby Hauck’s team is headed in the right direction. In his second stint at Montana, Hauck led the Griz to a 10-4 record in 2019 and their first trip to the FCS quarterfinals in a decade. And in a two-game sample last spring, Montana walloped Central Washington and Portland State by a combined score of 107-10. But it’s also true that in their past two games against FCS opponents – Oregon in 2019 and UW in 2017 – the Griz lost by a combined score of 98-10. Simply put, UW is more talented than Montana, more athletic than Montana, faster than Montana, deeper than Montana. And in their first home game in front of fans since the 2019 Apple Cup, the Huskies should also be motivated. Expect UW to dominate at the line of scrimmage, using an effective run game to set up explosive passing plays. Expect UW’s pass rush to get home and its secondary to be characteristically stingy. In short: Expect this one to be over early.

Final score: Huskies 41, Griz 10