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Sports >  UW football

Things to watch: UW Huskies must protect Michael Penix Jr. to have success against Michigan State

Sept. 16, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 16, 2022 at 4:05 p.m.

Mike Vorel Seattle Times

What: No. 11 Michigan State (2-0) at Washington (2-0)

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Husky Stadium

TV: ABC Radio: SportsRadio 93.3-FM KJR

Latest line: Huskies by 3.5

UW key players: QB Michael Penix Jr.: 69.7% completions, 682 passing yards, six pass TD, 1 INT. WR Jalen McMillan: 9 catches, 214 yards, 23.8 yards per reception, 3 TD. LB Alphonzo Tuputala: 12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack. Edge Bralen Trice: 8 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks.

MSU key players: QB Payton Thorne: 57.7% completions, 445 passing yards, 4 pass TD, 3 INT. RB Jalen Berger: 227 rushing yards, 6.9 yards per carry, 4 rush TD. LB Jacoby Windmon: 12 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass breakup. CB Charles Brantley: 13 tackles, 4 PBU, 0.5 TFL.

Protecting Penix

Michigan State’s 12 sacks through two games are the most in the nation. On the other side, UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has yet to be sacked. Something’s got to give on Saturday. This may be the biggest test of the season for an inexperienced offensive line, featuring a host of first-time starters in left tackle Troy Fautanu, left guard Nate Kalepo, center Corey Luciano and right tackle Roger Rosengarten. It’s unclear whether Washington will get sixth-year senior (and two-time first-team All-Pac-12) left tackle Jaxson Kirkland back on Saturday. Even without him, the Huskies have allowed Penix to complete 69.7% of his passes from a mostly clean pocket in his first two games. But Michigan State linebacker Jacoby Windmon, who leads the nation with 5.5 sacks, with be far more difficult to consistently subdue. The unit that wins this battle may win the game.

Secondary concerns

It seems silly to question a unit that currently ranks fourth in the nation in opponent completion percentage (42.9%), fourth in opponent pass efficiency rating (79.02), seventh in passing defense (121.5 yards allowed per game) and 17th in opponent yards per pass attempt (5.0). But here we are. If you’ve been watching, you know Washington has questions to answer at cornerback. Senior starter Jordan Perryman missed the Portland State game with an injury sustained the week prior, though he’s expected to return on Saturday. He was replaced by a converted safety who had never previously played corner in Julius Irvin. UW’s other starter, former walk on Mishael Powell, was flagged for defensive holding and pass interference on the same drive against Portland State — before being briefly replaced by a true freshman in Jaivion Green. Redshirt freshman Davon Banks also struggled, being burned on a deep ball that should have been caught for a touchdown and nearly giving up a long completion on a trick play as well. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s passing game has not been prolific — as quarterback Payton Thorne has completed just 57.7% of his passes and thrown for four touchdowns and three interceptions. But the Spartans will be looking to expose the Husky secondary on Saturday.

Winning the big one

Here’s a serious question: when is the last time UW won a premier non-conference game against a Power Five opponent? Since topping Purdue in the 2001 Rose Bowl, the Huskies’ non-conference Power Five victories have come against the likes of Indiana, Syracuse, Nebraska, Illinois (twice) and Rutgers (twice). During that span, they’ve lost to Miami, Texas, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, Nebraska, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Alabama and Penn State — some more than once. This is a program that has struggled to win the big one outside of Pac-12 play. Can new coach Kalen DeBoer instill the belief UW needs to down No. 11 Michigan State? Or, like last season’s beating at the hands of Michigan in Ann Arbor, will the Huskies appear outclassed against a superior Big Ten opponent? If Washington wants to establish itself as a national brand, it must do that by occasionally winning national match ups. It can start against Michigan State on Saturday.

Vorel’s prediction

Until UW actually wins the big one, it’s hard to have faith that the Huskies will do just that. Kalen DeBoer’s team will be ready to compete, but Michigan State’s pass rush will make Penix occasionally uncomfortable, and UW will struggle to establish a rushing attack. On the other side, Michigan State running back Jalen Berger will be hard to bring down and the Spartans will expose the Husky secondary for a couple big plays. This may come down to special teams, where Washington has struggled at times (particularly in kickoff coverage) in the first two weeks. If UW wins, Penix and his wide receivers will have to be the reason why. The Husky front seven will also need to come up big, led by edge rushers Bralen Trice, Jeremiah Martin and Zion Tupuola-Fetui. UW will put up a furious fight in a prime-time game on national television, but it won’t be enough.

Final score: Spartans 30, Huskies 27

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