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Sports >  UW football

Can Washington finally make a nonconference statement against No. 11 Michigan State?

Sept. 16, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 16, 2022 at 10:41 p.m.

By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – What Kalen DeBoer didn’t know might hurt him.

Or will ignorance be bliss?

In his weekly news conference Monday, Washington’s first-year coach was informed that UW hasn’t beaten a ranked nonconference Power Five opponent inside Husky Stadium since No. 11 Michigan in 2001. In fact, UW is just 8-22 (regardless of venue) against nonconference Power Five programs in that span – with wins against Indiana (2003), Syracuse (2007, 2010), Nebraska (2010), Illinois (2013-14) and Rutgers (2016-17).

That murderer’s row of mediocrity went a combined 38-62 in the seasons when Washington won.

The past two decades, DeBoer knows now, have yielded little but Husky heartbreak in nonconference/postseason play – with losses against Michigan (2021), Ohio State (2018, 2007, 2003), Auburn (2018), Penn State (2017), Alabama (2016), LSU (2012, 2009), Oklahoma (2008, 2006), Notre Dame (2008, 2005, 2004) and more.

But 21 years after topping No. 11 Michigan, the Huskies host No. 11 Michigan State on Saturday.

“I didn’t even know that. I wasn’t aware of that,” DeBoer said Monday, when informed of UW’s home drought against ranked nonconference Power Five foes. “It would be huge, no question. With where we’re at in the process of coming back and building, I like where we’re at after two games. But this is a different animal. We’re talking about a top-ranked team. So it would mean a lot to us, there’s no doubt about it.”

It might mean even more to those who have lived through the losses. Sophomore edge Sav’ell Smalls – a Seattle native – played in last fall’s methodical thumping at Michigan, after watching UW falter in similar situations in seasons past.

“To finally do it … we lost to Bama (in 2016), lost to Penn State (in 2017), then lost to Ohio State (in 2018), then Auburn in that (2018) opener,” said Smalls, a former five-star recruit who has produced eight tackles in UW’s first two wins.

“It’s been a lot of close games, too. I watched all of those games and they were all close. A couple plays would have changed the outcome of the game. So it’d be special to be a part of the team that finally went and beat a team out of conference.”

Added junior running back Richard Newton, who redshirted in 2018 and started at Michigan last season: “Honestly, this is big for this program and for the Pac-12. Because I don’t feel like these other conferences really respect the Pac-12 as far as football goes.”

Michael Penix Jr. knows that better than most. Prior to transferring to UW this offseason, the 6-foot-3, 213-pound quarterback played in 20 games at Indiana in the Big Ten from 2018 to 2021.

“You’ve got to make them respect you,” Penix said. “That’s all I got to say: Make them respect you. That’s just how it is.”

One way to do that is by slowing a Michigan State running game that has averaged 228.5 yards (25th nationally) and 5.71 yards per carry (24th) in its first two weeks.

Despite the departure of Seahawks rookie Ken Walker III, the Spartans are led by 6-1, 215-pound redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger – who has amassed 227 rushing yards, 6.9 yards per carry and four touchdowns.

In the 31-10 loss at eventual College Football Playoff semifinalist Michigan in Ann Arbor last fall, the Huskies surrendered 343 rushing yards, 6.1 yards per carry and four rushing scores … against an offense that attempted just 15 passes.

UW finished 10th in the Pac-12 in opponent yards per carry (4.76) and 11th in rushing defense (194 yards allowed per game).

It’s one way to say the Spartans’ strategy shouldn’t surprise.

“They obviously want to run the ball,” said Smalls, whose Huskies have allowed an average of 114 rushing yards and 3.26 yards per carry in their first two wins. “They’re probably going to come in and honestly try to punk us, go, ‘Hey, let’s try to go to Seattle and take what’s theirs and embarrass them in front of their home crowd. Let’s try to establish our dominance up front.’ That’s what I would assume their game plan is and how they’re thinking.

“That’s the challenge, stop the run, at the end of the day. We didn’t stop the run last year, so they’re going to come in and try to run the ball down our throat.”

The Huskies will have to prove they can stop that strategy.

After all, they haven’t beaten a ranked nonconference Power Five opponent inside Husky Stadium since before Smalls was born.

As for DeBoer, the first-year head coach acknowledged that “every game there should be a tickle in your belly, right? You want to be a little nervous. That means it means something. It’s important. I know that’s going to be the case this weekend for some guys. But you just want to make sure we embrace the moment.”

Smalls, his teammates and Huskies fans have been waiting more than two decades to do just that.

“It’s what you dream of, honestly,” Smalls said. “At the end of the day, it’s ABC, against a team that’s coming into your house ranked. That’s what you dream of. That’s what you watched as a kid. Now we’re here.”

“There’s just a new edge about this team, man,” Newton said. “A new swagger. Confidence. Everyone’s confident, man. We prepare so hard, it’s hard not to be confident rolling out on Saturday. We put in the work all week. We do the time. So I think it’s going to pay off on Saturday.”

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