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Sports >  UW football

Kalen DeBoer led Fresno State to a win over UCLA last fall. Can he repeat the feat with the Huskies?

Sept. 29, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 29, 2022 at 7:33 p.m.

Then-Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer walks the sideline during the second half against Hawaii at the Clarance T.C. Ching Complex on Oct. 2, 2021, in Honolulu.  (Getty Images)
Then-Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer walks the sideline during the second half against Hawaii at the Clarance T.C. Ching Complex on Oct. 2, 2021, in Honolulu. (Getty Images)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Kalen DeBoer is a Rose Bowl conqueror.

On Sept. 18, 2021, Fresno State made the 220-mile drive south to Pasadena as 11-point underdogs against No. 13 UCLA. The unbeaten Bruins were entering off of a bye week, preceded by a home upset over No. 16 LSU.

DeBoer’s Bulldogs, meanwhile, were a deceptive 2-1 – having nearly upset No. 11 Oregon in a 31-24 loss just two weeks earlier.

Four hours, 569 total yards and 455 Jake Haener passing yards later, Fresno State silenced the Rose Bowl with a 40-37 win. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns in the final 3 minutes, as a hobbled Haener dissected the Bruins’ secondary. After finding Jalen Cropper for the winning 13-yard score with 14 seconds left, the former Husky signal caller fell to his knees, raising both hands in gutsy glory.

It was the game of the year in college football, vaulting DeBoer onto coaching candidate lists.

It was also an experience his offensive coordinator won’t soon forget.

“In your career you get to call some really fun games, and I think that would be up there for me – just how we did it offensively,” said first-year UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, who masterminded an attack that earned 15 more first downs than UCLA (32 to 17) while doubling its opponent’s time of possession (40:20 to 19:40). “Especially in the fourth quarter, every time our number got called we were able to answer. At the end of the day, that’s what you want.

“I always tell the guys, why we say ‘Big O’ is when they need us and it’s the end of the game, we’ll answer. We were able to do that that night. It was a fun night. I remember taking pictures with the guys on the field afterward. It was just special to see all their work pay off.”

But did DeBoer and his staff carry that magic to Montlake? In No. 15 Washington’s 4-0 start, the Huskies lead the nation in passing offense (368.8 yards per game) and rank fifth in total offense (530.8 yards per game), fifth in plays of 20 yards or more (29), eighth in first downs per game (27), 11th in third down conversions (51.79%), 12th in scoring offense (44 points per game), 14th in turnover margin (1.25), 15th in yards per play (7.17) and 16th in yards per pass attempt (9.6).

On Friday, DeBoer will enter the Rose Bowl as a 2.5-point favorite against undefeated UCLA (4-0).

He’ll have to summit the same mountain with a different team.

“It’s just always a lesson in keep fighting, keep playing. It’s never over till it’s over,” DeBoer said of the Fresno State win. “That game doesn’t mean anything to this team. But those are things that just continue to give you that fighting mentality as a coach. Our guys are probably aware of the experience we went through. There’s been different times when it’s been brought up, whether it be spring ball or summer. It might’ve been showing a two-minute drill, those type of things. But it doesn’t really mean anything. These are two different teams that are lining up …”

UCLA introduced a new defensive coordinator – Bill McGovern – in February, and much of its personnel is also altered. The recipe that yielded 569 total yards, 455 passing yards, 32 first downs and five touchdowns last fall won’t necessarily produce a similar result Friday.

Besides, UW’s offensive success has forced opponents to search for creative solutions.

Which makes in-game adjustments essential for DeBoer and his staff.

“The more points you score and the more answers you have offensively, the more creativity that generates on the other side of the ball,” Grubb said. “So just like there was last week, there will be a coverage or a pressure or a stunt that we hadn’t repped yet and we’ll have to solve it on the sideline and make sure we have answers for the guys (during the game).

“One of the things I love about all the assistant coaches is how they work their tails off in between series. We talk about it. ‘Hey, they did this. Make sure we talk about that.’ It’s just a real workmanlike mentality. When the guys get there and they’ve got a big target on their back, there’s always going to be the possibility of something changing in the structure. Definitely with UCLA that will be more in play than anybody we’ve played. They’ve shown a lot of different looks and they’re very multiple in their coverage and front scheme.”

Plus, opposing defenses aren’t the only ones providing weekly surprises. Grubb adds to his playbook throughout the season, telling his team “this offense will always push to the saturation point. Once they get to that point and they don’t think they can do any more and they don’t execute at a high level in practice, we’ll know we have to cut it back. But there’s probably 90 calls on the call sheet a game, and there’s going to be different nuances to even familiar plays.

“That’s something we try to push and make sure we’re giving different pictures to the defense every week. Because if you’re lining up and you look exactly the same it’s just a point of reference for the defense. They can see it quickly and recognize it faster than you want them to.”DeBoer will surely recognize the Rose Bowl on Friday night.

But if his team has learned anything this month, it’s that last season’s results no longer matter.

“We’re 4-0. That’s great. But what are we going to do about it now?” sophomore linebacker Carson Bruener asked Tuesday. “So that’s something we keep going in day in and day out with extra motivation (to prove).

“Obviously, we know how last year happened and people were doubting us, and maybe they’re still doubting us. ‘Oh, they haven’t played anyone yet. Michigan State lost against Minnesota last week.’ It’s still early in the season, but can we do that for 12 games? That’s the biggest question that we’re determined to answer.”

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