PASADENA — Maybe the Huskies figured nobody in Seattle was watching them anyway, and they could relax while their city rejoiced.
Perhaps the Mariners being the focus of the town caused UW to lose its focus before it was too late.
Whatever it was, two things were made clear Friday night: Doubt about whether the M’s could actually make the postseason ended, and doubt about how good these Huskies actually are arose.
My coworker Mike Vorel is writing about how one play — a first-quarter fumble that resulted in a safety — changed the complexion of the contest. He isn’t wrong — especially when you consider the Huskies’ valiant comeback attempt in the fourth quarter. But Washington’s 40-32 loss to UCLA went beyond a pitch bungled by running back Wayne Taulapapa.
This wasn’t just an example of how a game can spiral out of control — it was an exposé on a team whose schedule concealed its now conspicuous flaws.
For example … The Huskies’ defense was (is?) a mess. Washington (4-1, 1-1 in the Pac-12) may have convinced some folks it was a shut-down squad — particularly because it came into the game tied for fifth in the nation in sacks per game (3.7). The Dawgs did, after all, keep then 11th-ranked Michigan State to 14 points through the first 55 minutes of their 39-28 win in Week 2. But it turns out the Spartans — who lost to Minnesota 34-7 the next week — simply aren’t an offensive force.
College athletes can get paid now, but the Bruins (5-0, 2-0) made UW look amateurish, going eight straight drives without punting and leading 40-16 after three quarters.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson netted 241 of his 315 passing yards in the first half, dicing up a Huskies “D” that looked lost throughout the evening.
Questions about the Huskies’ pass defense lingered over them before the season, and Friday the primary query was answered: It needs a lot of work.
“Definitely a blindside,” said Washington safety Alex Cook when asked if he was surprised by the defense’s porous play.” There’s no excuses for why we didn’t perform. There was things we need to clean up schematically and things as players — we just need to make plays. That’s what it came down to — we didn’t make the plays we needed to make.”
Remember, UW’s first two opponents were from mid-major conferences (Kent State and Portland State), MSU looks vastly overrated and Stanford (Week 4) has a win over Colgate and nothing else to its name. The Bruins appeared to be the Huskies first real opponent this season, and they looked real suspect.
Plus … Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. looked vulnerable. Real vulnerable. The fifth-year junior was spectacular in his first four games, in which he tallied a nation-leading 1,388 passing yards while entering the Heisman conversation as a fringe candidate. But Friday, he threw two ghastly interceptions that were his fault and his alone.
The first came with UCLA leading 16-10, when Penix passed into double coverage before Stephan Blaylock picked him off. The second came two drives later — with a UW three-and-out serving as the interlude — when Penix was intercepted by JonJon Vaughns on the first play from scrimmage.
“Just bad eyes. I gotta be smarter with the ball,” Penix said of his two interceptions. “Tonight, it wasn’t my best. Normally (if) I take care of the ball, I feel like we will have a chance.”
He still put up respectable numbers, completing 33 of 48 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns. He still got the Huskies to within one score when he led a fourth-quarter drive that made it 40-32. And he still may win Pac-12 Player of the Year. But as many of his predecessors are haunted by losses at the Rose Bowl, he may be temporarily haunted by a couple decisions Friday.
That said … Penix’s teammates will have plenty of regrets, too. You can’t point to any one player for UW’s demise Friday, but some may be replaying certain moments in their minds more than others. Taulapapa’s fumble came after Washington stopped UCLA on 4th and goal from the 3 with a 7-0 lead, but led to them falling behind 9-7 and never finding their footing again.
There was also an opportunity for an interception in the first half on a batted ball, but the pigskin slipped right through the fingers of Huskies defensive lineman Faatui Tuitele. Dropped passes and other miscues ensued.
The Huskies still walked away with pride, fighting till the end when they could have folded. That’s what UW coach Kalen DeBoer emphasized after the game. But this team is a project right now — not a finished product.
Few in Seattle were concerned about Washington football Friday given what the Mariners achieved. Given the Huskies’ performance, that’s probably a good thing for them.