Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Analysis: UW Huskies must play to a higher standard in clash with Oregon

Wide receiver Germie Bernard of the Washington Huskies makes a reception past safety Isaiah Taylor of the Arizona Wildcats during the second half of the NCAAF game at Arizona Stadium on September 30, 2023 in Tucson, Arizona. The Huskies defeated the Wildcats 31-24.  (Getty Images)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

TUCSON, Ariz. – Michael Penix Jr. said the word “standard” seven separate times.

Following No. 7 Washington’s 12th consecutive win, the sixth-year senior quarterback sat in a crowded conference room under Arizona Stadium’s west bleachers. His last loss came 357 days earlier, in a similar stadium 110 miles north.

In the year since, UW earned road wins over rivals Oregon and Washington State, downed Texas in a bowl game contested in the shadow of the Longhorns’ campus, returned NFL prospects on both sides of the ball, established Penix as a Heisman Trophy front-runner, and set public goals for a Pac-12 title and a playoff berth.

This is not the same team that fell 45-38 at Arizona State – an injured program with a backup quarterback, an interim coach and an eventual 3-9 record – on Oct. 8, 2022.

In Seattle, the standard has been elevated.

Which is why, sure, a win is a win.

But Saturday’s won’t satisfy.

“Every week we strive to be the best in the nation,” said Penix, who completed 30 of 40 passes and threw for 363 yards in UW’s 31-24 win over Arizona. “We’ve got a standard. Our standard is within us. That’s something we set for ourselves.

“On the outside, a lot of people are going to have opinions on what they feel our standard should be or how they think we should play. But at the end of the day, we know we’ve got each other. We’ve got to make sure we just come out and play better for each other and eliminate those negative plays and the bad football that we had, and we’ll be good.”

Negative plays, like a whopping 12 penalties for 125 yards. Without injured offensive-line starters Matteo Mele and Julius Buelow, their replacements – center Parker Brailsford and right guard Geirean Hatchett – were hit with two holding penalties apiece. The Huskies also surrendered a pair of sacks on Saturday, after keeping Penix clean for each of the previous three weeks.

With Mele out for the season and Buelow’s status uncertain heading into the bye week, the pressure is on UW’s reconfigured offensive line to show lasting progress. As a whole, the Huskies rank 128th out of 133 teams nationally in penalties per game (8.8) and 132nd in penalty yards per game (94.2).

These Huskies may be talented enough that they’ll only lose if they beat themselves.

But soon enough, they might just do it.

“On both sides of the ball we’ve got to do a better job with some penalties,” conceded UW coach Kalen DeBoer. “People are looking for it, and we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to make sure if there’s a gray area, we’re not in it.”

On Saturday, there were waves of gray.

Which isn’t to say Washington’s win in the desert was a purely negative display. The UW running game continues to coalesce, led by rejuvenated junior Dillon Johnson – who evaded arm tackles en route to 91 rushing yards, 5.7 yards per carry and two touchdowns, plus five carries for 48 more yards.

Penix said Johnson “comes with the same attitude every day, and he’s a guy that’s going to run the ball north and south. We’re just glad he came to us from Mississippi State. He’s been a big add for us, and he’s going to continue to make big-time plays for us down the road.”

The same can be said of sophomore wide receiver Germie Bernard, who made the most of Jalen McMillan’s second consecutive absence – contributing eight catches for 98 yards and a 3-yard rushing score.

But Bernard also squandered an opportunity to bury the upstart Wildcats, fumbling in the fourth quarter at the Arizona 3-yard line. It was the Huskies’ second fumble inside the opponent’s 10, after tight end Jack Westover earlier coughed up a ball that conveniently bounced out of bounds.

Afterward, DeBoer admitted there were “opportunities in the second half for us to put the game away. Disappointed in that, for sure.”

Washington’s red-zone touchdown percentage – 79.3% – ranks 12th in the nation. But given college football’s constricting clock rules, the Huskies can’t afford to give away points.

Particularly when their defense struggles in the desert.

Granted, the numbers seem serviceable. Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita completed 27 of 39 passes for 232 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, while the Wildcats ran for just 110 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. In a sold-out Arizona Stadium, they went 5 for 13 on third down.

But this was also a Wildcat team without its starting quarterback (Jayden de Laura) and running back (Michael Wiley). It was a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first career start.

DeBoer said, “We knew it’d be a different style we’d see from the quarterback play, but knowing who he was, we knew he’d be able to deliver the ball and throw accurately and give their guys chances to make plays.”

Fifita did that and more, while succumbing to a single Bralen Trice sack. Washington – which managed precious little pressure on Saturday – owns six sacks in its first five games, ranking 119th in the nation.

“We made them earn it all the way down the field,” DeBoer said of UW’s defense on Saturday. “Sometimes we’ve just got to attack a little bit more, trust everything. But I thought it was a solid performance.”

For most teams, a road win over a conference opponent in a sold-out stadium exceeds “solid.”

But to beat also-undefeated Oregon on Oct. 14, the Huskies must be better. They must eliminate penalties, rediscover their pass rush and (somewhat) consistently stop the run. They must score touchdowns inside the 10. They must get McMillan, Buelow and defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa – who left Saturday’s game with a leg issue – back from injury.

They must reach and exceed their own standard to extend a yearlong winning streak.

“This game is different from the Oregon game,” Penix said. “We’ve got a 24-hour rule. We’re going to go over it with our film, and after that it’s over with. We know what we have to do to be better, and that’s what we’re going to do. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing.

“We’ve got to uphold that standard. Every game is a big game.”