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Sports >  UW football

Commentary: After UW’s win over Michigan State, it’s time to reset expectations for Huskies

Sept. 18, 2022 Updated Sun., Sept. 18, 2022 at 7:10 p.m.

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. smiles as he holds the game ball after a 39-28 win over Michigan State on Saturday in Seattle.  (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. smiles as he holds the game ball after a 39-28 win over Michigan State on Saturday in Seattle. (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

In the Times’ college football preview section, published Sept. 2, I predicted Washington would go 8-4 in Kalen DeBoer’s debut season in Seattle.

Sixteen days later, it’s time to reassess.

In those 16 days, UW rolled over Kent State (45-20) and Portland State (52-6), before bombarding No. 11 Michigan State in a prime-time 39-28 win on Saturday. I wrote in the aforementioned article that if a Spartan pass defense that ranked dead last nationally (allowing 324.8 pass yards per game) in 2021 is still lacking, “the Husky wideouts might have an opportunity to expose a shoddy secondary and secure a huge home win. But we’ll have to see it to believe it.”

Seen. Believed.

Junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns, while redshirt freshman wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk exploded for six catches, 153 yards and three scores. Nine different Huskies caught passes, a number UW has eclipsed in all three games this season.

“We had a matchup issue that they took advantage of,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said Saturday. “It was obvious. It showed up early in the game. If you look at their drives in their first two games, almost all of their scoring drives included explosive gains. We knew we needed to eliminate explosive gains. It was a deal where it’s too easy to score when you give up big chunks.”

Through three games, UW has 22 gains of at least 20 yards – ranking seventh in the nation. The Huskies lead the Pac-12 in passing offense (388.7 yards per game), total offense (548.3 yards per game) and third down conversions (56.1%). Penix – who Tucker called “one of the best players in the country” – has yet to be sacked.

So, considering the above, here’s the obvious question: who wouldn’t have matchup issues against Washington’s passing attack?

The Huskies should be a significant favorite against Stanford – a team that’s coming off a bye but lost 41-28 to No. 7 USC on Sept. 10 – in their Pac-12 opener on Saturday. They’ll then hit the road for tilts at UCLA (which needed a last-second field goal to survive with a 32-31 win over South Alabama last weekend) and Arizona State (which just fell to Eastern Michigan, thrusting Herm Edwards’ job security into the incinerator).

Realistically, UW’s most formidable tests should come in November – with matchups against 3-0 Oregon State, 2-1 Oregon and 3-0 Washington State (plus a touchdown buffet against 0-3 Colorado on Nov. 19).

But the fact that UW’s schedule does not include Pac-12 contenders USC and Utah is an obvious advantage.

As is, potentially, Husky Stadium.

“That was awesome,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said of the field-storming crowd of 68,161 on Saturday. “I don’t know if this is because of the road issues or anything like that, but we came over the 520 there and started crossing the lake (from their hotel in Bellevue to the stadium). Seeing everything backed up, there started already being a vibe on the bus like, ‘OK, Husky Nation’s showing out tonight.’

“Then when we got out here and we took the field right before kickoff, man, that was special. Every single play (it was) loud and proud. For our defense, (that gives you) the little step that you need in a pass rush. Maybe it isn’t always the false start that you get, but it’s that one step you get because a tackle can’t see the ball and can’t hear the clap. He just goes on movement. That makes a huge difference.”

From a visitor’s perspective, Jim Comparoni – the publisher of SpartanMag.com – said in a video on Saturday night: “You hear about how loud it is in here, how the covered grandstands put the noise back out onto the field. The press box was open air, so we could hear it. Usually in the press area we can’t really hear the crowd. I was amazed how loud it was. I was wearing ear plugs. I was texting friends of mine in the stands. I was like, ‘Is this as loud as I think it is?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, this is one of the loudest crowds I’ve been around.’ It’s up there with Ohio State, I would say. In some ways it’s even louder than a dome. I’m not sure if that’s possible.”

Right now, anything feels possible – at least, in Pac-12 play.

But for DeBoer’s dazzling debut to continue, more will have to go Washington’s way. The oft-injured Penix will have to stay upright behind an instantly rejuvenated offensive line. Key contributors will have to stay healthy as well. UW will have to survive with a battered secondary that could get starting safety Asa Turner and cornerback Jordan Perryman back in the next few weeks. The Huskies – who rank first in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (90 yards allowed per game) and second in opponent yards per carry (2.73) – will have to keep stuffing the run, something they couldn’t do last season.

And, perhaps most importantly, UW – which was ranked No. 18 in Sunday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll – can’t let off in the wake of a win.

“You guys have heard me talk about 1-0 mindset, right? It’s usually a response to adversity,” DeBoer said on Sept. 10. “But we talk about also the response to when things are going well. Human nature is to let up and relax. We want to play relaxed, but we don’t want to let off the gas. We want to stay focused and have that intensity and urgency for four quarters. So what I like right now is we’re coming off the sideline and there’s an expectation to go do it again.”

With DeBoer, Penix and a clown car stuffed with capable Washington wide receivers rolling weekly over the 520 bridge, 4-8 is old news … as is 8-4.

UW’s self-assigned motto this season is “No Limits,” and that’s starting to feel more like a fact than an aspiration.

There are nine (or 10, or 11, or 12) more tests ahead. And yes, it would be prudent to limit your expectations. But if I’ve learned anything from the last 16 days, it’s this:

Pick against these Huskies at your peril.

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