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Commentary: B1G statement made: Huskies hope rout of Michigan State is preview of what’s to come

Washington Huskies wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk leaves the Michigan State Spartans defense in his wake as he runs in for a touchdown during the second quarter Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023 in East Lansing, MI.  (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The Big Ten will no doubt present its share of stiff challenges and occasional heartbreak for the Huskies when they make their grand entrance next season.

But if the Huskies were worried about making a good first impression in their initial foray into Big Ten territory as an official soon-to-be member of the conference, well, they shouldn’t have fretted.

Facing a Michigan State team that was already reeling from the suspension without pay of head coach Mel Tucker, embroiled in sexual harassment accusations that have roiled the program, Washington made the Spartans look like a nonconference pushover Saturday with a 41-7 victory. The game wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.

On this day, Sparty was not throwing a party, unless it was a pity party. It was complete and utter domination by a Husky team that lifted its record to 3-0 and showed that their No. 8 national ranking was not an oversell.

It’s impossible to know how much Michigan State’s turmoil affected its play, but there was no visible semblance of the Spartans rallying around the new staff. What’s not impossible to know, or at least plausibly surmise, is that the Huskies could have probably scored 70 had coach Kalen DeBoer not mercifully pulled quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and the starters midway through the third quarter and toned down the game plan in the second half.

And it was still a rout for the ages. In program history that dates back to 1918, Michigan State had never given up more total yards of offense in a game than the 713 amassed by the Huskies. And that total was second in Husky history only to the 734 they had in their 1996 dismantling of San Jose State. That’s the game renowned for Corey Dillon rushing for 222 yards and four touchdowns – in the first quarter.

The Huskies’ most recent excursion into Big Ten territory two years ago hadn’t gone so well, of course. They got throttled in the Big House in Ann Arbor by Michigan the week after Montana had sent their season spiraling irreversibly with a devastating season-opening upset. It would go downhill from there.

But in the Moderately Large House in East Lansing, Washington showed that last year’s 39-28 win over Michigan State in Seattle, in which UW led 29-8 at halftime, was a precursor, not an aberration. Spartan Stadium is known colloquially as “The Woodshed,” which is an apt description of where Michigan State got taken by the Huskies on Saturday.

The student section was almost completely cleared out midway through the third quarter. Most of the rest of the fans joined the exodus by the fourth quarter. It was the first game in the history of the stadium in which alcohol sales were allowed. The timing was apt.

“And we still left some stuff on the bone,’’ said wide receiver Rome Odunze, assessing the Husky onslaught. “There were some drives we didn’t score on.”

DeBoer said the Huskies came to East Lansing intent on “sending a message” but elaborated that the message was just playing to their maximum level of execution and coping with a hostile road environment. Nothing more profound than that. And Odunze insisted there was no intention by the Huskies of alerting the Big Ten of what they have in store down the road.

“I feel like we are really focused in on this season,’’ he said. “We haven’t paid too much attention about (the pending conference change). Of course, it’s something that you can’t completely ignore is happening. So, we understood that we use that as extra motivation. But it really wasn’t a big factor coming to this game. We’re still in the Pac-12, so we’re just getting our business done outside the conference.”

But Odunze did acknowledge that the Michigan loss in Ann Arbor in 2021 didn’t sit well with the players still around from that team.

“This last week (we were) thinking about the last time UW made a trip out to Michigan and how it went,’’ he said. “There was definitely some bad blood with that. We had to come out here and show what we are now.”

This game was like a documentary to introduce the Big Ten to what the Huskies are now, and what they hope to be in the future. In addition to the overwhelming barrage of total yards, the Huskies stifled Michigan State’s attack and didn’t lose their shutout until the previously unbeaten Spartans scored a TD with 5:58 left in the game against Husky reserves.

Washington’s offense was impetuous and its defense impregnable, to steal from the classic Mike Tyson riff. Odunze caught eight passes for 180 yards. Ja’Lynn Polk had five for 118 yards. Jack Westover caught four passes, and three went for touchdowns. Jalen McMillan had 98 receiving yards before exiting with a leg injury that DeBoer said didn’t appear serious. Penix hung around long enough to enhance his ever-more-persuasive Heisman Trophy case by completing 27 of 35 passes for 473 yards and four touchdowns.

At one point in the postgame news conference, someone asked DeBoer if he was “shocked” at how wide open the UW receivers were throughout the course of the game. Penix, sitting next to DeBoer on the podium, began shaking his head vigorously and mouthing, “No, no, not at all” before the coach could answer.

As for that “statement” to which DeBoer alluded: “We always want to be our best and show what we’re capable of. And it’s cool when that pays off in the production like we had tonight, because it really continues to just be a motivator for when we get back on the practice field this coming week.”

A motivator for the rest of this promising Husky season – and, they hope, a sneak preview of their potential when trips like this one to Big Ten territory will matter in the conference standings.