It seems like forever since the last University of Washington football game, when as you all remember, coach Gil Dobie worked his magic against Oregon Agricultural.
Yes, that’s hyperbole. We know it actually was Hugh McElhenny running wild against USC and returning a punt 100 yards past Frank Gifford of USC.
OK, for realsies: the last Husky football game was the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21, 2019, when the Huskies crushed Boise State, 38-7, in Chris Petersen’s finale as coach.
The point is, it’s been so long since the Huskies have played that the details are getting fuzzy. If and when they play Oregon State on Saturday night at Husky Stadium — emphasis on the “if,” a two-letter word that will carry a lot of heft this year — it will have been 329 days since Washington got to “go trade some paint, hit some pads that have a different color than their own,” in coach Jimmy Lake’s words Monday.
I’d venture that never before has a Washington season opener been so keenly anticipated. And not for the usual reasons — that they are a highly touted team with aspirations for conference and national impact that people can’t wait to see mow down their opponent.
Oh, the Huskies obviously still want to measure themselves in the Pac-12, though their potential national stature has dwindled by virtue of having a mere six-game schedule (IF they get to play six).
No, the anticipation this year comes from finally (they hope) being able to unleash the deferred excitement and pent-up emotion of having three previously scheduled openers canceled.
The most recent decision came last Thursday, just a day before the Huskies were scheduled to fly to the Bay Area to play Cal on Saturday night. Instead, Cal had too many players in COVID-19 quarantine to play (despite having just one positive case), and so the Huskies players and staff had to regroup yet again, as did their fan base.
Lake, still waiting to make his head-coaching debut — he’s drawn up, pored over and then discarded three game plans in the process — has been steadfast in maintaining a positive attitude. His strategy is to roll with the punches, and getting his players to do the same. Lake firmly believes the teams that handle the disruptions of this season with the most equanimity will be the most successful.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The Husky players were stunned and disappointed when they found out they weren’t going to play last week, barely 48 hours before kickoff.
“I think it was real 2020-like, if you know what I mean,” defensive back Elijah Molden said. “This year has not gone the way a lot of people would have hoped it would have gone. But at the end of the day, we can only control what we can control.
“It stung; the first couple of minutes, we were hurt for sure. And then after that we kept on saying, ‘Don’t feel sorry for ourselves.’ The last thing we want to do is have a negative attitude and have a bad week preparing for Oregon State. I think we turned it around really fast. Now we’re really itching for Saturday.”
Will they get to scratch that itch, with the vigor of someone suffering from poison ivy? It would be prudent not to jump to any conclusions. Utah pulled out of its game with Arizona last week on Friday, proving that this year you can’t assume a game will be played until you see the ball sitting on the tee. Or maybe you’d better wait until it’s actually kicked.
The COVID-19 crisis in college sports is, if anything, mounting, commensurate with the surge of cases around the country. Four SEC games this weekend have already been postponed, and No. 3 Ohio State’s game with Maryland was canceled Wednesday. It’s almost guaranteed there will be more. The status of every game is reminiscent of the time-honored prognosis for an injured player: Day to day.
That’s the new reality everyone must wrap their brains around.
“Honestly, I don’t really remember what normal is, if you know what I mean,” Molden said. “We come here and do the same thing every day, just a new schedule, day in and day out. That’s kind of become the new normal. Really, we’re just living day by day. We adjusted, we adapted to these times. I’m sure a couple years from now I’ll look back, and I won’t really be able to fathom the type of crazy year we’re having now.”
It was particularly maddening for the Huskies to watch, well, eight of their Pac-12 brethren playing Saturday while they remained grounded. Defensive back Keith Taylor at least tried to learn from the games he took in.
“I was watching a lot of games, and I was thinking, while watching them, what we need to work on, how to not look like that, you know what I mean?” he said. “I’m not saying they played bad or anything, but I’m just saying, what mistakes do they make where we can be better at?”
There’s so much waiting to be revealed by the Huskies. Who will be their quarterback, or quarterbacks? How effective will new coordinator John Donovan’s offense be? Can the defense “impose its will” on teams, as is their stated desire? What will be the hallmarks of a Lake team, and how much will it vary from Petersen?
We finally get to find out Saturday. Theoretically. Hypothetically. The “when” is 8 p.m. The “if” is ongoing.