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University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: UW’s spring game confirms Huskies will be held to lofty standards

Washington first year coach Jedd Fisch stands in the backfield as quarterback Teddy Purcell finds a hole in the fourth quarter of the UW Spring Game, Friday, May 3, 2024 under the lights of Husky Stadium.  (Dean Rutz/Seattle Times)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The most sustained applause inside Husky Stadium wasn’t triggered by a touchdown pass. It didn’t serenade a timely interception or punctuate a pad-popping hit. It wasn’t a response to any individual play.

It was a nod to the past, not the present.

With 54 seconds left in the second quarter of the “Dawgs After Dark” spring game Friday night, a breathing embodiment of Husky history appeared on the video board. Draped in a black Falcons hoodie, Michael Penix Jr. smiled and twisted the fingers on his famous left hand into a “W.” As it had on so many Saturdays the past two years, Husky Stadium provided adoring applause.

Indeed, Friday’s scrimmage doubled as a celebration of UW’s prideful past. Shaq Thompson, Lincoln Kennedy, Danny Shelton and Jake Locker served as honorary coaches. Vita Vea – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ resident black hole – sounded the pregame siren with a smile. Recent Huskies Penix, Dominique Hampton, Devin Culp, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Asa Turner and Nate Kalepo stood facing the field where they were undefeated last fall.

The sideline was peppered with proof of this program’s lofty standard.

In the Big Ten Conference, with a completely retooled roster, can its next team clear the bar?

“It’s very serious,” junior cornerback Elijah Jackson said Friday, of the responsibility to maintain that standard. “I feel like coach (Jedd) Fisch does a great job of reminding us, this is a new team. This is the same culture, but this is a new team, so we can’t (coast) off what we did last year. We’ve got to continue to elevate.

“People know us now. We were on the map, kind of, last year. We shocked the world. But now we have the target on our back. We’re the big dogs. So we have to live up to it. It’s a privilege to.”

As it reads on motivational posters and whiteboards in high school locker rooms, pressure is a privilege. With a Sugar Bowl win, a national championship berth, a Pac-12 championship, repeated drubbings of rivals Oregon and Washington State, and 14 consecutive victories inside Husky Stadium, UW earned these expectations.

Which, in part, is why 18,448 fans showed up to watch a celebrated scrimmage on a Friday in May.

Fisch’s manic marketing efforts obviously helped.

But the momentum generated by Penix and Co. mattered a whole lot more.

“We wanted people to be here. They responded,” Fisch said Friday night. “It’s also a credit to last year’s team. I’m sure these fans wanted to come see what it looked like (now). Last year’s team was 14-1, and now you’ve got a chance to come back here and celebrate last year’s team while kicking off this team. One thing we’ll never forget is the success of last year’s team and the year before, and we’re going to try to build off of that.”

To be clear, the Huskies’ roster remains under construction, which is why their few available offensive linemen were forced to flip between teams.

But Friday – in a 24-23 purple win over gold, though scrimmage scores are irrelevant – we saw some building blocks.

Like senior quarterback Will Rogers’ floating 28-yard back-shoulder touchdown to wide receiver Denzel Boston. Or freshman running back Adam Mohammed bulldozing linebacker Anthony Ward for a physical 4-yard score. Or freshman quarterback Demond Williams Jr.’s connection to Cal transfer Jeremiah Hunter for a twisting 5-yard touchdown and ensuing two-point conversion. Or Grady Gross’ game-winning 29-yard field goal, while shouting Husky teammates encircled him on all sides.

There were fragments of winning football.

But will it translate this fall?

“I’m just excited to see how good we can get this summer,” Fisch said. “That’s the biggest challenge. We’re not taking this summer and using this as a vacation. We’re taking this summer and really challenging ourselves to see how good we can be.”

That depends, in part, on whether UW can utilize the transfer portal to build its trenches on both sides of the ball. Without the ability to block, or stuff the run, the rest is irrelevant.

But as Washington fans know all too well, superior quarterback play can catalyze that growth. On Friday, Rogers completed 14 of 25 passes and threw for 154 yards with a touchdown and an interception, a solid, yet unspectacular outing for the transfer from Mississippi State. Williams looked largely like an early enrollee freshman, completing 7 of 17 passes for 42 yards with a touchdown and a pick that UW corner Thaddeus Dixon returned for a 42-yard score.

Cameos aside, Penix isn’t walking back through that door. Kennedy won’t start at left tackle against Weber State. Vea is unavailable to envelop opposing running backs on Seattle Saturdays.

Through 9,544 passing yards, 74 total touchdowns, Heisman ceremonies, school records and prolific Saturdays torching Pac-12 secondaries, Penix earned an eternal ovation inside Husky Stadium.

Like Penix, the 2024 Huskies will receive the opportunity – the privilege – to earn it all.

“It felt like a pipeline of tradition that I’m happy to be a part of (seeing former players on the sideline),” Jackson said. “You could feel the culture – the lineage of Marcus Peters, Mike Penix, Devin Culp. Seeing people coming back and embracing makes you feel pride in UW, to wear the W.”

Added senior safety Kamren Fabiculanan, who decided to stay this offseason: “It’s very important to me, keeping the standard the standard, if not raising it up. I take a lot of pride in that, because I know what we can do. I know what the standard looks like. So I’m just trying to keep the tradition going.”