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University of Washington Huskies Football

Analysis: Three lingering questions following UW’s season-opening win over Boise State

Washington cornerback Kamren Fabiculanan (13) celebrates his interception of a second-quarter pass against Boise State at Husky Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

Four days prior to UW’s season-opening 56-19 win over Boise State, Edefuan Ulofoshio stood near Husky Stadium’s northwest tunnel and told the truth.

“Last time I checked, Utah has the Pac-12 championship and USC was the one that went to Vegas as well,” said UW’s sixth-year senior linebacker and captain. “So we can’t just say, ‘Oh, we won 11 games, beat Texas.’ The goal is to win the Pac-12 championship and the bowl game. That’s why we’re all here.

“So we’re just keeping the main thing the main thing. Yeah, it’s good that we grew from that, and we can take those wins. But we have to understand that there’s a bigger picture at the end.”

There’s a bigger picture than Boise State.

Which shouldn’t diminish what Kalen DeBoer and Co. accomplished on Saturday. Against a 10-win team predicted to win the Mountain West Conference, UW was dominant. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. kicked off his Heisman campaign with 450 passing yards, 72.5% completions and five touchdowns. Six different Huskies (wide receivers Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk, tight ends Jack Westover and Josh Cuevas, and running back Dillon Johnson) entered the end zone, while Washington pried two interceptions from Broncos quarterback Taylen Green.

But to accomplish Ulofoshio’s stated goals, what strides must be made? Let’s assess the lingering question marks in an otherwise convincing win.

What’s the state of the offensive line?

While introducing three (relatively) new starters – left guard Nate Kalepo, center Matteo Mele and right guard Parker Brailsford – UW’s pass protection was impressive, surrendering a single sack of Penix that ended the Huskies’ opening drive.

And even then, other issues may have caused the collapse.

“I thought (the offensive line) did a really nice job,” DeBoer said. “I don’t feel like there was any confusion or anything the defense caught us by surprise with. With Mike (Penix) identifying it and communicating to the O-line, it just felt like we were in control.

“Even with the sack, there were some execution things we didn’t do very well at the skill positions and it kind of threw Mike off his read progression. That’s what happens: your eyes go down and you lose the pocket integrity, and that’s where that sack happened. But I thought they did a really nice job overall.”

Given the Huskies have a prolific pocket passer with an injury history, protection is paramount.

But it isn’t everything.

To maintain balance against stingier defenses in Pac-12 play, UW must also run the ball. And outside of a pair of Will Nixon runs (for a 21- and 14-yard gain) the Huskies couldn’t get much going on the ground. Nixon led UW with 48 rushing yards and eight yards per carry, but Dillon Johnson, Daniyel Ngata and Sam Adams II combined for just 14 yards on nine carries (1.6 YPC).

A year ago, UW’s running game grew as the season went on, and that could certainly happen again. The Huskies are still experimenting with guard combinations, as junior Julius Buelow (34 snaps) actually saw more action than Kalepo (28 snaps) at left guard. In his first career start, Brailsford – a 6-foot-2, 275-pound redshirt freshman – logged 62 snaps (three more than returning left tackle Troy Fautanu and right tackle Roger Rosengarten) and earned the best grade from Pro Football Focus (74.4) of any UW offensive lineman.

But without injured starter Cameron Davis, UW is searching for stability in the backfield as well – with Johnson (22 snaps), Nixon (21) and Adams (16) earning the majority of reps.

“(The running game) is probably where it was at the beginning of last year a little bit,” DeBoer admitted. “Things to look at, that you want to be better at, would be running the football better – more consistently. Will Nixon hit one off tackle to the left (for the 21-yard gain). There’s some things there where he’s picking up his knees and not getting tripped up at the ankles, things where I’ve seen guys improve a lot from last year, pass protection things from our tailbacks. There’s been a lot of improvement.

“So now just keep working, keep working, just like last year. That run game is going to be important to complement our pass game as we go through this season.”

Can UW’s defensive front seven be dominant?

UW’s defense is unabashedly built around its returning defensive linemen, edges and linebackers. But the impact of those groups were somewhat muted Saturday.

Specifically, Ulofoshio managed the team’s only sack of Green (though the Huskies were credited with nine hurries and two hits). And though UW’s offensive explosion forced Boise State to abandon the run, the Broncos totaled 138 rushing yards, 4.9 yards per carry and a touchdown on the ground as well.

UW’s standout edges, Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui, combined for five tackles with one hurry and zero sacks.

But for UW to take pressure off its precarious pass defense, the Huskies must consistently clobber opponents up front.

“(Green) wasn’t going to hold on to the ball,” DeBoer said of UW’s relative inability to apply pressure. “He was going to throw a fade down the sideline one-on-one and give them a chance. And even with little post routes or glance routes that they’ve thrown last year and this year, he throws in rhythm.

“Where you get him is on the play-actions and stuff like that. We got after him a little bit and he did some nice things scrambling, getting away from us. It’s hard to get to a guy that throws in rhythm. He does a good job of that.”

Is UW’s pass defense improved?

Outside of a pair of screen passes to running back Ashton Jeanty that tallied 48 and 50 yards, and a 40-yard strike to wide receiver Stefan Cobbs, Green went 16 for 36 (44.4%) for 106 yards and two interceptions.

UW must eliminate the outlier strikes.

But there does appear to be progress.

Statistically, cornerbacks Jabbar Muhammad and Davon Banks both excelled. In his first start after transferring from Oklahoma State, Muhammad surrendered just one catch for five yards on four targets and added a tackle and a pass breakup. And in 26 snaps as a reserve, Banks allowed just one reception on six targets and led the team with four pass breakups (plus a pair of tackles).

“He’s really goofy, but his preparation is crazy,” Muhammad said of Banks, a redshirt sophomore. “Being in the film room, he’s really smart. He knows the playbook really well, and he just let it loose today, so I’m really proud of him.”

Sophomore corner Elijah Jackson did not fare as well in his third career start, surrendering four catches on four targets for 107 yards (according to Pro Football Focus), plus a team-high three missed tackles and two pass interference penalties.

Did Banks play his way into a starting spot on Saturday? And can UW’s pass defense eliminate seismic mistakes?

Check back in the coming weeks.