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Washington’s offense has set a historic standard, but can Cal slow Michael Penix and the Huskies?

Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. shushes the crowd after scoring a touchdown against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MIch., last Saturday.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Washington’s wide receivers were responsible for three drops and a fumble in the nonconference game against Tulsa on Sept. 9. The following week, associate head coach JaMarcus Shephard said “our wideouts felt like we lost the game. That’s how we came off the field, because of the standard we have set for our group to perform. We didn’t perform at that level.

“I challenged Rome (Odunze), challenged J-Mac (Jalen McMillan), asking them, ‘Why did you come back here, if that’s what you’re going to do on the field? You should have just went ahead and entered the draft if that’s how you’re going to perform on Saturdays.’ I know they completely, totally agreed, and went to work immediately.”

A reminder: The Huskies finished with 563 total yards, 454 passing yards, three pass touchdowns and 43 points against Tulsa.

They won by 33.

But that example underscores the standard held by the entire Husky offense. Through three weeks, Washington ranks first nationally in passing (493.3 yards per game), yards per play (9.46) and plays of 30 yards or more (19); second in total offense (614.7 yards per game), yards per pass attempt (11.2), passing touchdowns (13) and sacks allowed (one); and eighth in scoring (46.7 points per game) and first downs per game (27.3).

In Saturday’s 41-7 road romp, No. 8 Washington gained the most yards (713) surrendered by Michigan State despite pulling Heisman Trophy contender quarterback Michael Penix Jr. in the third quarter.

When asked Monday to grade his group’s performance out of 10, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb took a beat, said “Hmm …”, then responded.


“I believe that, too,” he said. “We were 3 of 10 on third down (against MSU), put ourselves in some really bad positions two weeks in a row where we made some of the really tough plays look easy, and we made some of the easy plays look tough. That’s what we’ve got to eliminate, stubbing your toe on silly penalties. We were 0 for 2 on third down at halftime. One was third-and-10 and the other was third-and-20. You’re not going to probably hit a lot of those.”

The Huskies hit just about everything else.

Still, despite the prolific (and historic) start, Grubb sees room for improvement. UW committed seven offensive penalties against Michigan State, throwing lifelines to a drowning defense. The Huskies twice settled for second-half field goals inside the Spartans’ red zone, which Grubb called “wildly disappointing.”

Through an undefeated non-conference start, UW ranks 20th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (78.95%), 32nd in turnovers lost (3), 41st in yards per carry (4.92) and 54th in third down conversions (44.4%).

Granted, these are not glaring statistical weaknesses.

But to finish with a Pac-12 title and a playoff berth, the Huskies have to be even better.

“You’re only as good as your last game, so we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and put a great game plan together – which I know our offensive staff will do and our guys will buy into it again this next week and go execute,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said. “That’s the key, go execute and just do the fundamental things. We’ve got talented enough players to where if they just do what they’re capable of and stay within themselves, we’re going to have successful days. You’re going to have big days like we had Saturday (against MSU).

“And of course, as we go through the Pac-12 season we know we’re going to face some pretty stout defenses. That’s fun because you get pushed to your limits.”

Starting, perhaps, on Saturday.

A year ago, Cal effectively frustrated the Husky offense in a 28-21 UW win – with Washington managing just 28 points, 102 rushing yards, 3.2 yards per carry and a single completion of 30 yards or more. It snapped a seven-game streak to start the season with a UW touchdown on its opening drive, and the Huskies held a precarious 6-0 halftime lead.

The last four matchups between UW and Cal have been decided by seven points or less – a 28-21 UW win in 2022, a 31-24 UW overtime win in 2021, a 20-19 Cal lightning delay win in 2019, and a 12-10 Cal upset in 2018.

Through three games this fall, the Golden Bears’ 10 turnovers gained – five interceptions and five fumble recoveries – ranks tied for first in the nation.

The Huskies are favored by 20.5 points in their Pac-12 opener on Saturday night.

But Cal is coming to push their limits.

“They had a good plan, tried to keep a lid on it and keep us from being explosive down the field,” Grubb said of the 2022 matchup. “So they really did a good job with that, and then mixing in pressures at the right time. They’re a defensive staff and a bunch of kids that have been in that system for quite a while, so they’re going to have answers and some different looks for us, for sure.

“That’s one of the things our guys have to know going into the football game: this isn’t a team going into the first year of their system. It’s an experienced group. It’s a group that can adjust. So we’ll have to dig deep and find a lot of different looks and try to confuse them a little bit and see if we can execute at a higher level than we did last year.”

The good news for UW football fans: This isn’t the same Husky offense, either.

Penix has completed 74.3% of his passes and thrown for 1,332 yards with 12 touchdowns and a single interception in his first three games, a more precise passer. His top three targets – wide receivers Rome Odunze (22 catches, 419 receiving yards, three TDs), Jalen McMillan (20, 311, four) and Ja’Lynn Polk (13, 300, three) – have each earned acclaim for becoming physically stronger this offseason.

And winning in increased ways.

“All three of those guys have made themselves more available to different situations by understanding the whole scope of the offense, so that it’s so much easier to put those guys in different positions now,” Grubb said. “You can switch a guy from Z to H or H to X (wide receiver spots) and move him around so people can’t just get a bead on, ‘Oh, Rome just plays X, and he plays in one spot.’ So I think the biggest thing has been those guys creating more depth in their knowledge of the offense, for sure.”

Prior to this season, two Husky receivers had surpassed 100 receiving yards in the same game eight times in school history.

It’s happened in each of their first three games.

At Washington, a historic standard has been set. Can Cal slow the Huskies?

“I think (Cal’s) got a special group (on defense). I really do,” Grubb said. “They’ve got three corners that play really well, a couple safeties that hit really hard. We think they’re going to be by far our biggest test.”