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Analysis: You think these Huskies put up points? UW’s 103-year-old bar is a whole lot higher

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. throws a pass against the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday in Seattle.  (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
Mike Vorel Seattle Times

So you think these Huskies put up points?

Consider the perspective.

Through eight games, Washington (6-2) is perhaps college football’s most improved offense — ranking first in the nation in passing (379.3 yards per game), first in plays of 10 yards or more (155), third in first downs (27.9 per game), fifth in third down conversions (53.57%), sixth in turnovers lost (5), seventh in total offense (508.5 yards per game), seventh in pass touchdowns (22), 12th in scoring (40.4 points per game), 14th in sacks allowed (0.88 per game), 18th in time of possession (32:20.88) and 19th in pass efficiency rating (158.09).

That’s certainly an encouraging compilation.

But the scoring ceiling is a whole lot higher.

On Oct. 25, 1919 — 103 years ago, Tuesday — Washington hosted Walla Walla’s Whitman College … and came away with a 120-0 win. Outweighing Whitman by an average of 30 pounds per player, according to The Times, UW raced to 19 (!) touchdowns — including seven by Husky halfback Erve Dailey. A crowd of nearly 5,000 at Denny Field witnessed a one-sided spectacle that nearly defies description.

“University of Washington 120, Whitman 0. The score tells the story without further comment,” The Seattle Times’ subsequent game story began.

But this statistically implausible pummeling also provided an occasional laugh. The Times wrote that “the humorous high light of the game occurred in the first quarter when Pope, the big Washington right guard, tore an eleven-inch hole in his trousers. All hostilities were suspended while Trainer “Heck” Edmundson dashed out on the gridiron and bound the flapping edges into some semblance of order.”

That’s Clarence Sinclair “Hec” Edmundson — the namesake for UW’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion — who had just arrived from Texas A&M and would coach the Husky men’s basketball team for the next 27 seasons, compiling a record of 488—195 (. 714).

As for Whitman, head coach Raymond Borleske declined comment — except to state his team “had done as well as could be expected,” according to The Times. “He pointed out that besides being light, the Missionaries were inexperienced. Three of his men, he said, had never played football, even in high school, before they entered the Walla Walla school.”

Whitman’s often underperforming football program ceased operations in 1977.

As for Washington — well, you know that story.

And while the Huskies won’t be held to a 120-point standard the rest of the way, Ryan Grubb said Monday his offense can improve in four key areas:

• Open-field elusiveness

• Short yardage consistency

• Third-and-long avoidance, and red zone production

UW’s scheme has provided a weekly cadre of uncovered receivers, and the Huskies’ 38 completions of 20 yards or more ranks fifth in the nation. But UW still sits just eighth in the Pac-12 in both rushing (129.25 yards per game) and yards per carry (3.99).

UW’s running backs, tight ends and wide receivers can all improve in open space.

“Our long run for the night was 12 yards (in last weekend’s 28-21 win over Cal),” said Grubb, UW’s first-year offensive coordinator. “So I think (we need) more explosive runs out in the open, where it doesn’t just have to be Giles (Jackson) or (Jalen McMillan) or Rome (Odunze), but somebody else getting the football.

“If we get our skill guys highlighted versus a safety one-on-one, I really feel like up front they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do. If the first guy that touches them is a secondary player we’ve got to win at least 50% of those battles. Right now I’d say we’re well under that. The guys know that. That’s been very clearly defined to them, that they’ve got to keep working on that. There’s things we do literally every day in practice, where there’s coaches back there with physio balls throwing it at ‘em late, scout team players being instructed on how to make us beat the last defender.”

UW’s issues in short yardage as well as the red zone — where the Huskies’ 68.18% touchdown percentage ranks fifth in the Pac-12 and 40th in the nation — also stems from an inconsistent ground game. Grubb noted that “there’s games where we come out and execute the (short yardage) plan really well, and I thought we did that on Saturday. And there’s games where that’s obviously been a problem for us.”

And yet, there’s no shortage of available bodies. UW used five scholarship running backs in the win over Cal — sophomore Cameron Davis (46 rushing yards, 1 rush TD, two catches, 18 yards), senior Wayne Taulapapa (25 rushing yards, four catches, 40 yards, three drops), junior Richard Newton (18 rush yards, 36-yard receiving TD) and redshirt freshmen Will Nixon (15 rush yards) and Sam Adams II (five rush yards, one catch for five yards).

The running backs’ roles have been incrementally established, with Taulapapa the steady starter and Davis (whose 10 touchdowns lead the conference and rank eighth in the nation) a red zone weapon and reliable runner.

Still, Grubb said the emphasis against Cal was on “breaking some tendencies too with certain guys — where people might view one running back as a one-dimensional guy, and going against the grain on a few of those things. They’re all talented in their own way. We’re getting a little closer to seeing what all those guys can do and just trying to keep them all healthy, too.

“That’s always a challenge with the running back position. It’s a violent position and those guys play really hard. Just got to keep doing that to keep them all healthy as well.”

Cal forced UW to break tendencies in the passing game as well, eliminating explosive plays while allowing easy completions. Redshirt junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. completed 36 of 51 passes (tying his single-game completion record from the week prior) and threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns.

In doing so, he added another element to his offensive arsenal.

“You need to find new vertical seams and hook windows and things like that (against a more conservative defense),” Grubb said. “So it can be a little more cumbersome at times, when you’re looking at guys with eight catches for 80 yards and six for 60 and you complete (passes) to 11 different receivers. They make you work. That can be tougher.

“I thought he did a phenomenal job of not letting a play affect him, whether it be a new coverage scheme or someone dropping the football. He just moved on to the next play. So that was actually a growth moment for Mike, to have to push through that and still try to have a good football game. I know afterwards, me and him were around each other and found out he had thrown for 374 yards. I would never in a million years have guessed that. But that’s how those games go, where you just keep chunking yardage and finding ways to get completions.”

Of course, UW still fell frightfully short of 19 touchdowns.

And though that historical bar is impossibly high, and UW’s next four opponents — Oregon State (6-2), Oregon (6-1), Colorado (1-6) and Washington State (4-3) — are far more formidable than Whitman College, the Husky offense has room to improve.