Sean McGrew was Washington football’s lone representative on the watch list for the 2021 Doak Walker Award, which honors college football’s premier running back. In four games last fall, he led the Huskies in attempts (43), rushing yards (227), yards per carry (5.3), rushing touchdowns (4) and rushing yards per game (56.8). A sixth-year senior, he was dressed and available for Saturday’s season opener.
Come kickoff, McGrew didn’t play.
Likewise, Kamari Pleasant — another sixth-year senior — only saw the field on special teams. The rushing duties were split exclusively between Richard Newton (17 carries, 62 yards, 3.6 yards per carry) and Cameron Davis (four carries, eight yards) instead.
In his weekly news conference Monday, Husky head coach Jimmy Lake said, “I would expect Sean (McGrew) to get some reps here moving forward.”
Just don’t expect them to come against Michigan.
“I really felt, coming out of fall camp, it was important to find two guys that I can allow to get into a rhythm, that can give us the best chance to win,” UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said Tuesday. “Coming out of fall camp, going into the game on Saturday, I felt like CD (Davis) and Rich gave us that opportunity.
“Now, those other guys (McGrew and Pleasant) are veteran guys. It’s a long football season, and I’m expecting those guys to be ready when their number is called. You never know, it could be Saturday.”
Or, it could be more of the same. Because, while Washington’s running game struggled in last weekend’s loss to Montana, Bhonapha reiterated, “I do feel like those are the two guys (Newton and Davis) that can make our offense successful and make this team successful, and that’s where we’re going to start as far as getting those guys reps when we go in on Saturday.”
But there’s no guarantee Newton will again command the same share of carries. Because, while the 215-pound Newton seems to have established himself as the Husky starter, Bhonapha vowed to ride the hot hand against a Michigan defense that allowed just 119 rushing yards and 3.7 yards per carry in last week’s 47-14 win over Western Michigan.
“I will try to get Rich going. He might get a couple more carries earlier than Cam,” Bhonapha said. “But if Cam gets in there and it’s like, ‘OK, this guy has a feel,’ we’re going to stay with him.”
A lifeless Husky sideline
The Huskies brought more energy in an empty stadium last season than they did Saturday.
And according to co-defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe, there’s a reason for that.
“The biggest difference from last year to this year is (last year) we were forced to encourage each other, because no one was there,” Malloe said Wednesday. “With fans there and us not having that experience of playing in a crowded stadium, I do think that was an influence. We were cheering when they were cheering. We were down when the fans were down. We were upset when they were booing.
“I think that’s just the maturity level of our team at that time. I think they understand now that regardless of the situation, home or away, the energy needs to come from us — starting from coach Lake, through the coaches, through the players.”
That sentiment was shared by sixth-year senior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman, who described UW’s sideline demeanor against Montana as “kind of zombie-like in a way.”
“Guys had really good energy at first, with the first (touchdown) drive and everything that was happening,” Bowman said. “And then once dudes got punched in the mouth and the crowd went silent guys were kind of like mute, too, on the sideline, looking for where the energy should be.
“Last year everybody had to create their energy. We didn’t have any fans. Ultimately, it should be the same. It should be like how it was last year for us. We shouldn’t even be thinking about the fans. But maybe dudes weren’t used to that scenario, given the COVID year last year. But it’s no excuse.”
The energy issue has been addressed by UW’s coaches and players. On the surface, it shouldn’t be a concern at Michigan Stadium, which will host more than 109,000 frenzied fans.
But then again, it shouldn’t have been a concern in the season opener, either.
“It was a little irritating,” Bowman said. “But I don’t think dudes realized that was happening. We’re all on the same page about it currently, so I’m not too worried about where we’re going to be moving forward in that regard.”
Corralling Corum and Co.
Bowman watched Michigan’s win over Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon from the team hotel.
“It’s pretty clear to see what they’re trying to get done (offensively),” he said. “There’s not a lot that they’re hiding.”
It’s clear to see, statistically, that Michigan emphasized its running game — amassing 335 rushing yards, 7.8 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns in a physically dominant display. The Wolverines ran a total of 43 times, as opposed to just 13 passes. And they specifically spotlighted 200-pound sophomore Blake Corum — who stacked up 111 rushing yards, 7.9 yards per carry, a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a 79-yard kick return.
“He’s a special player,” Lake said of Corum. “He’s not just a running back, he’s a returner. We’re going to have to be ready for him in the special teams department and also at running back. He’s shifty. He reminds us a lot of Myles Gaskin in his body type, his height, how he sees the linebackers and safeties in the box and how he’s able to make them miss.”
Meanwhile, Washington surrendered 127 rushing yards, 3.7 yards per carry and a rushing score against Montana — the lowlight being a 37-yard scamper on the opening drive of the game. That’s after the Huskies allowed 4.54 yards per carry last season (seventh in the Pac-12), then set about solidifying their run defense.
If the Huskies have improved, it’s time to prove it.
“We’re going to stop the run,” said UW inside linebacker Jackson Sirmon, who led the Huskies with nine tackles against Montana. “They want to run the ball, and we’re going to stop the run. We’re excited to do that. They’ve got some talented guys running the ball, and it’s just one of those things where one guy is going to get on the tackle and we’re going to have to have everybody flock to him, try to win with yards after contact and just push them backward.”
That’s what being an inside linebacker is all about.
“I’m excited for a physical game,” Sirmon said. “I’m excited for them to try and run it. I’m excited to stop the run and go against some good backs, a big O-line. It’s going to be fun.”
- Because Saturday’s game is played in the eastern time zone, UW left Thursday — a day earlier than usual — to properly assimilate to that environment. “We’re getting out there earlier and practicing during our game time,” Lake said. “Our game time is at 8 o’clock their time, so we’re getting our guys acclimated for two days and playing at the same time on Saturday night.”