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University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: In wake of UW’s first loss under Kalen DeBoer, we’ll learn who these Huskies really are

Michael Penix Jr. heads off the field Saturday after Washington lost its first game of the year, 40-32 to UCLA in Pasadena, California.  (Dean Rutz/Seattle Times)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Kalen DeBoer stood at a podium in a cramped room off the southwest tunnel inside the Rose Bowl, assessing an onslaught of unforeseen mistakes. It was 11:20 p.m. Friday, and the Husky coach’s voice was hoarse, faltering after 3 hours and 20 minutes of forgettable football.

“What happened tonight is certainly felt in the locker room, and it’s across the board,” said DeBoer, dressed all in black, following UW’s 40-32 defeat to UCLA. “There’s a team that’s hurting in there because they expect to win; I really believe that. They came out at halftime with a genuine belief that we can go win the football game. It isn’t just something that’s fake. I really felt that and you saw us believe that until the very end.

“It didn’t go our way. We have to be better at so many things, but the guys are going to fight. If there’s anything you learned about our team tonight, I think it’s that.”

Yes, there’s that.

But this list is longer.

We learned that the Husky secondary – weakened by the departures of Trent McDuffie, Kyler Gordon, Brendan Radley-Hiles and Jacobe Covington, depleted by injuries to starting cornerback Mishael Powell and safety Asa Turner – can indeed be exposed by a quality quarterback. The cracks were apparent in previous weeks, but a prolific offense and a potent pass rush minimized the secondary’s mistakes.

Even at its best, UW’s cornerbacks corps comprises a former walk-on (Powell), an FCS transfer (Jordan Perryman), a converted safety (Julius Irvin), a redshirt freshman (Davon Banks) and a true freshman (Jaivion Green) – none of whom was considered a blue-chip recruit. Banks and Green closed the game as the Husky cornerbacks.

In a dominant display, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson completed 24 of 33 passes (73%) and threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns – and everything looked easy.

“It hurt us,” DeBoer said of UW needing to lean on Banks and Green, a pair of freshman corners. “There’s some double moves and some things that they did to our secondary. There’s no way we’re going to put it on (Banks and Green), because there’s other things that happened during the course of the game, too. But certainly those guys were thrown out there and they had some tough matchups against a quarterback that can sling it and some receivers that can make some plays.”

UW’s inability to cover, of course, is a season-wide concern. But the Huskies’ tackling issues weren’t as prevalent in previous weeks. Senior safety Alex Cook – who led UW with 11 tackles – said those issues were “definitely a blindside. I felt like we had a really good week of practice. Obviously, we have a bunch of injuries, but as we all know, the standard never changes. Even young guys … we had two freshmen in; it doesn’t matter. As for me, I didn’t make the plays I needed to make. So I’m taking full responsibility for the stuff we gave up on defense.”

Outside of the passing attack, UCLA rushed for 184 yards, 4.7 yards per carry and two touchdowns – including 129 rushing yards and 6.1 yards per carry in the second half.

On Friday, the Bruins provided a blueprint for Arizona to follow; for Cal to follow; for Oregon State, Oregon and Washington State to follow.

It’s up to UW’s defense to destroy the blueprint.

“I’m going to tell the offense, ‘Never lose faith in the defense.’ That was just a bad game for us. That’s not going to happen again,” Cook said. “We’re going to let them know that, as a defense, we’re going to do everything in our power to get better. We’re going to reverse this thing.

“And the message to the defense is, ‘Never lose faith in the offense.’ Because the offense struggled in the first half a little bit. I saw some heads going down a little bit. Because in the first four games, we were coming out super hot. We haven’t been really stressed like that. We haven’t been worried like that. The message is, ‘Never lose faith in one another.’ Because we’re going to get things fixed at the end of the day.”

UW couldn’t fix itself in a self-destructive second quarter, when the Huskies were outscored 17-3. Holding penalties on offensive linemen Roger Rosengarten and Troy Fautanu negated first downs, and directly preceded a punt and an interception. Sophomore defensive lineman Faatui Tuitele couldn’t hold onto a possible pick as well.

But outside of the secondary, it’s hard to know which faults will linger. It’s possible quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s two picks reflect a larger problem, after the Indiana transfer threw just four touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. It’s possible the offensive line – which so underwhelmed last fall – has finally, unfortunately returned to earth. It’s possible UW’s kickoff coverage, which surrendered returns of 40 and 31 yards, is not as fixed as it seemed against Stanford and Michigan State.

It’s possible the aforementioned Spartans and Cardinal were not true tests.

It’s possible this is a 10-2 team, or a 9-3 team, or an 8-4 team.

In the wake of adversity, we’ll learn who these Huskies really are.

“I wanted to get a feel of what it was like in (the locker room after the game),” DeBoer said. “I feel like we’re a team that expects to win, and we’re a team that puts in the work to be able to expect to win. So it’s going to hurt. There were a lot of guys hurting, and a lot of guys owning up to already what their response was going to be to the mistakes that they made.

“There’s nothing about losing today that makes you feel good, but I know the quality of character our team has based on the response our team had – whether at halftime or the end of the game.”