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University of Washington Huskies Football

Why Washington needs to escape ‘Fumble Island’ … while forcing a few, too

Washington’s Dillon Johnson runs for a touchdown against the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, Calif.  (Getty Images)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – “Fumble Island” is 53.3 yards wide, a wasteland at Washington. It’s the infamous, uncompromising home of crawling accountability.

In the past few weeks, Fumble Island – part metaphor, part punishment – has hosted far too many Huskies.

Specifically, No. 5 Washington (8-0) has lost five fumbles this fall … including four in the past four games. That’s after UW lost just two fumbles in 2022, tied for the fewest in the nation.

When a Husky player surrenders a fumble in a practice or game, there’s a predictable punishment. They’re tasked with cradling a pigskin under each arm and crawling the round-trip width of Alaska Airlines Field – 106.6 yards.

“That’s Fumble Island,” UW junior wide receiver Rome Odunze said. “If you put the ball on the ground, you’ll be crawling, for sure.”

Unfortunately, Odunze is qualified to speak on the subject. In Saturday’s 42-33 win at Stanford, the standout junior was stripped after corralling a 7-yard reception at the Cardinal 12-yard line. Instead of extending a 35-26 fourth-quarter lead, the Huskies subsequently surrendered a Stanford touchdown that narrowed the deficit to 35-33.

“As I tell (the receivers) all the time, ‘If you have the football in your hands, you have the result of the game in your hands,’ ” UW wide receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard said. “So we’ve just got to take that more to heart and have conversations about how they feel when they fumble. Rome let the group know, ‘Guess what? It felt like the worst thing you could ever do in football.’ ”

A fumble feels bad … and Fumble Island doesn’t feel much better.

“When it’s hot out, it gives you turf burns on your forearms. So it’s a terrible experience,” Odunze said. I “know Denzel Boston had it last year and was all bruised up. Once you get scabs on those forearms, it’s hard to get those (to go) away.”

On Montlake, the turf burns may be mounting. In an unappetizing 15-7 win over Arizona State on Oct. 21, UW lost two fumbles – a botched exchange between quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and running back Dillon Johnson, and a Ja’Lynn Polk turnover that followed a 7-yard catch. The fumble bug also bit in a 31-24 win over Arizona on Sept. 30, when sophomore wideout Germie Bernard coughed up the ball on the Wildcats’ 5-yard line.

While the Huskies have only lost five fumbles, they’ve put the football on the turf 13 times – ranking 108th in the nation.

“I think there’s a preparation piece to that, if I’m being transparent,” offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said of UW’s sloppy play against Stanford. “That’s what I told the guys on Sunday. I thought we had a good game, not a great game. Two red-zone turnovers is horrific.

“We had a Thursday practice of Oregon week where we were 46 of 47 throwing the ball. The ball touched the turf one time all day. That’s not what it was on Thursday practice (last week). So we’ve got to focus up and do a great job. I know Rome (Odunze) and JP (Polk), they made plenty of plays for us. So as far as dropping the ball, I don’t think that’s something to (dwell) on. But I’m more concerned with how we protect the football. Rome had fumbled the football out of bounds multiple games in a row. There’s just too much of that right now, and we’ve got to get it cleaned up.”

There’s just too much … and not enough.

On defense, UW has forced just one fumble (tied with Stanford for last in the nation) and has yet to recover a fumble (tied with Indiana for last in the nation). No. 20 USC, on the other side, has recovered seven fumbles (15th nationally) and forced 10 (10th).

Granted, the Huskies have nine interceptions, two more than they totaled in 13 games last fall.

But when it comes to forcing the football out, the Huskies are empty-handed.

“I think violent tackling is something we need to be better at, getting more guys to the ball when a guy is trying to battle and fight for extra yards,” UW edge coach Eric Schmidt said. “If we’re doing a good job of pursuing and playing with a lot of effort and desire, that’s when footballs come out.

“I do think guys are punching at it and doing things we teach them to do. But it’s about getting enough people to the ball and then being violent, especially with your upper body, and training your arms to club through footballs. The more shots on goal you get doing that, the more opportunities you’re going to have to recover fumbles.”

UW would like to snap that streak on Saturday. While Trojans quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams has tossed just two interceptions in 12 career games at Memorial Coliseum (and none so far this season), USC has had a hard time holding on to the ball. The Trojans’ 19 fumbles this fall rank 130th nationally, ahead of only Nebraska’s 24.

So, can UW finally send someone else to Fumble Island?

“Honestly, it’s as simple as just running to the ball and not giving up on the play,” said senior linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, who leads the Huskies with 57 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, while recording their lone forced fumble. “The ball’s going to come out in the most random times, inopportune times. When it’s out, it’s always the person who’s kind of running to the ball who has the best opportunity.

“There was several opportunities in that Stanford game where I could have got the ball out. I felt it and I was like, ‘OK, I have to keep raking, keep raking, keep raking.’ It’s studying which players hold the ball out looser than the others. It’s taking your opportunities, taking your chances.”

Then making opposing offenses crawl.