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University of Washington Huskies Football

Things to watch: No. 18 Washington needs to protect Michael Penix Jr. to avoid a letdown against Stanford

By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

Stanford (1-1) at No. 18 Washington (3-0)

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium


Latest line: Huskies by 13.5

UW key players

QB Michael Penix Jr.: 66% completions, 1,079 passing yards, 10 pass TD, 1 INT

WR Ja’Lynn Polk: 12 catches, 245 yards, 20.4 yards per reception, 4 TD

LB Alphonzo Tuputala: 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack

S Kamren Fabiculanan: 11 tackles, 1 pass breakup

Stanford key players

QB Tanner McKee: 67.7% completions, 528 passing yards, 3 pass TD, 3 INT, 1 rush TD

WR Michael Wilson: 7 catches, 112 yards, 16 yards per reception, 2 TD

LB Levani Damuni: 16 tackles, 1 pass breakup, 1 QB hit

S Patrick Fields: 11 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TFL

Avoiding the letdown

The last four times Washington has been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the Huskies immediately lost the following week. Oh, and two of those four losses came against Stanford, in 2019 and 2020. Which isn’t to say Washington won’t roll over Stanford on Saturday. But the Huskies can’t consider this a cupcake game, either. Despite losing 41-28 to No. 7 USC on Sept. 10, Stanford – which is also coming off a bye – actually gained nine more first downs than the Trojans (33-24). The Cardinal rushed for a whopping 221 yards, 4.9 yards per carry and three touchdowns. Two of their drives ended in turnovers at the Trojans’ 2-yard line, providing a somewhat deceptive final score. And their quarterback, Tanner McKee, has caught the eye of NFL scouts. So yes, the Huskies are favored to win here – and rightly so. But Stanford deserves, and requires, their full attention.

Containing McKee

Speaking of McKee, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior completed 65.4% of his passes and threw for 2,327 yards with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. He’s off to a bit of a slow start this fall, with three touchdowns and three interceptions in his first two games. Even so, Stanford’s coaching staff – which, let’s repeat, is coming off a bye – will undoubtedly see that Michigan State’s Payton Thorne torched the Husky secondary for 71.4% completions, 323 passing yards and three touchdowns (as well as an interception) last weekend. That secondary may still be missing starting safety Asa Turner and cornerbacks Jordan Perryman and Elijah Jackson on Saturday as well. Stanford’s rushing attack will always be the focus, but expect McKee to take copious shots at a shaky secondary. To help out that group, the Huskies’ pass rush will have to get home.

Protecting Penix

The good news? Stanford’s pass defense surrendered 74% completions, 341 passing yards and four touchdowns to USC’s Caleb Williams two weeks ago. But Williams was also sacked three times. If UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. – who has not been sacked in his first three games – stays upright, the Stanford secondary should be overmatched. That’s due also to a wide receiver corps that features a slew of capable targets in Jalen McMillan, Ja’Lynn Polk, Rome Odunze, Giles Jackson and Taj Davis. Tight ends Devin Culp and Jack Westover have been productive pass catchers as well. The Huskies’ sheer variety of options makes it difficult for defenses to match up. But Penix is the engine that makes the whole thing move. If he’s on his game, good luck.

Vorel’s prediction

As stated above, there are reasons to worry. UW has not responded well to a national ranking over the last several years, and Stanford – with a bye week at its back – may be better than its most recent loss suggests. This isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a 30-point spread. And yet, this is a new era at Washington – and coach Kalen DeBoer has earned the full focus and confidence of a talented team. UW’s offense is designed and prepared to pick apart Stanford’s secondary, and Penix will do just that. The Huskies will effectively stuff the run for a second consecutive game, and the defense will force a turnover or two to extinguish Cardinal momentum. McKee will have some success, but same as Thorne, those contributions will only get Stanford so far. No. 18 Washington will get a home win to kick off Pac-12 play.

Final score: Huskies 41, Cardinal 27