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Sports >  UW football

Analysis: After Kalen DeBoer delivered a program-defining win at Oregon, what will Washington do next?

Nov. 13, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 13, 2022 at 4:25 p.m.

Washington coach Kalen DeBoer is interviewed after beating Oregon on Nov. 4 at Husky Stadium.  (Tribune News Service)
Washington coach Kalen DeBoer is interviewed after beating Oregon on Nov. 4 at Husky Stadium. (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

On Tuesday morning, Edefuan Ulofoshio set the stakes.

“It’s a program-defining game,” said the redshirt junior linebacker and leader, four days before UW traveled to Oregon for the first time since 2018. “Whatever coach comes in here … Pac-12 championships, yeah, those are great. But it’s how we play against Oregon that’s ultimately it. If you win against Oregon, they’ll love you forever. If you don’t, you might not be here anymore.”

A year ago, Jimmy Lake publicly imploded in Oregon Week – questioning the Ducks’ academic prowess in a now-infamous press conference, then shoving walk-on linebacker Ruperake Fuavai (and accelerating his exit) during a deflating 26-16 loss.

But enough about the past.

On Saturday, the pendulum finally, emphatically swung.

Following No. 24 Washington’s thrilling 37-34 upset of No. 6 Oregon (8-2), first-year Ducks coach Dan Lanning said: “This game 100 percent falls on me.”

Which, while we appreciate the sentiment, is not entirely true.

It’s also on Kalen DeBoer.

UW’s new coach nearly accomplished this feat a season ago, pushing Oregon to the brink in a 31-24 Fresno State loss inside Autzen Stadium. And on Saturday, the 48-year-old South Dakota native finished the job.

“I know it’s just huge,” DeBoer said of the gravity of the win, separated by a barricade from a growing group of Husky fans outside the stadium. “It’s about these guys in the locker room and everything that they’ve been through over the last couple years. Seeing the emotion, they deserve it, because they keep fighting and keep playing, keep working and stick together.

“In the end, program-wise, it’s a huge win. We just beat a top-10 team on the road. For us it’s just another step. There’s places and goals that we have, and I think every week we do some things that show we’re making progress towards those goals.”

Granted, these Huskies remain a work in perpetual progress. They surrendered 312 rushing yards and 6.1 yards per carry on Saturday, amassing a mountain of missed tackles. Their much maligned secondary also struggled, conceding touchdowns of 46 and 67 yards in the second half. In 10 drives on Saturday, the Ducks didn’t punt.

In truth, Washington needed breaks – a fumbled snap at the 4-yard line, a Bo Nix injury, a fourth-down slip by running back Noah Whittington, a questionable illegal touching penalty on wide receiver Troy Franklin, etc. – to ultimately down the Ducks.

It also needed a near-perfect performance from Michael Penix Jr.

Check. Check. Check.

Penix – who leads the nation with 3,640 passing yards – completed 26 of 35 passes on Saturday, throwing for 408 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. When Oregon went ahead 24-20 via a 29-yard Whittington touchdown run, Penix answered with a 76-yard sky ball to wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk to put the Huskies back on top. When Oregon scored 10 straight points – buoyed by a Penix interception in the end zone – to go up 34-27, Penix answered again, ripping a 62-yard touchdown to Taj Davis down the opposite sideline to tie the score.

It’s hard to imagine where the Huskies would be without Penix – who has completed 67.1% of his passes and totaled 27 touchdowns with just six picks.

But DeBoer deserves credit in this instance as well. The former Indiana offensive coordinator pursued a high-risk passer in the transfer portal – despite Penix’s four season-ending injuries, and despite a 2021 season that featured four touchdowns and seven interceptions in just five games.

Penix, too, was a work in progress.

And yet, DeBoer still knew where to place his faith.

“Man, coach DeBoer … I thank him every single day,” said Penix, who played under DeBoer at Indiana in 2019. “He’s a guy that always believed in me since he’s known me. Him trusting me, not worrying about my past with injuries and trusting I’ll come out here and be able to lead this team to great heights, I thank him all the time. I love coach DeBoer. I’m definitely in the right place. I’m glad I chose here and I look forward to continuing to make memories here.”

On Saturday, the Bay Area News Group’s Jon Wilner tweeted that DeBoer – who may have already earned an offseason extension – is the “best under-the-radar hire in the Pac-12 since I cannot remember when.”

DeBoer – and UW – should certainly be on the radar of prospective recruits. The significance of Saturday’s win cannot be overstated, particularly following a cycle in which two in-state targets (five-star Rainier Beach offensive lineman Josh Conerly Jr. and four-star Puyallup offensive lineman Dave Iuli) and three former Husky commits (defensive linemen Ben Roberts and Sir Mells and athlete Anthony Jones) signed with the rival Ducks. Oregon owns a commitment from four-star Rainier Beach corner Caleb Presley in the 2023 cycle as well.

Whether Lake wanted to admit it or not, Oregon is UW’s foremost recruiting rival. And on Saturday, Washington (8-2) may have won in multiple ways.

As Ulofoshio said, it’s a program-defining game.

Now it’s time to reset the stakes.

“There was great talent in the program (when I arrived), I really felt,” said DeBoer, whose Huskies close the season at home against Colorado and on the road at Washington State. “But just pulling it all together and getting everyone headed in the same direction … we’re doing that.

“We’re going to turn on the film and find there’s many things we can keep getting better at. I knew we hadn’t come close to playing our best game, and I challenged the guys to do that last week. We still didn’t do that. But that was more on the level that we can play at tonight. It’s going to be a great learning opportunity for us, to show what we’re capable of when offense, defense and special teams are all getting the job done.”

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