CHRISTIAN CAPLE

UW Huskies Midseason Report: Good, bad, and what lies ahead

Oct 19, 2023, 10:45 AM

UW Huskies Ja'Lynn Polk...

UW Huskies WR Ja'Lynn Polk reacts after a gain against Oregon on Oct. 14, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — The UW Huskies’ 36-33 victory over Oregon brought Washington to the season’s midway point.

Huard: Built for this – Penix could reach heights no UW QB has

Here is a breakdown of what the Huskies accomplished in their first six games and what might lie ahead, along with my picks for midseason MVPs, good things and bad things, Heisman contenders and our weekly Pac-12 power rankings.

The general vibe

This isn’t the highest the program has ever been at midseason, but it’s close. The Huskies are unbeaten, ranked No. 5 in both polls, the current (slight) favorite to win the Pac-12 and a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Their starting quarterback is the betting favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. They just beat a top-10 Oregon team in front of a sold-out Husky Stadium in the most-watched game of the weekend. Kalen DeBoer is 17-2 as Washington’s coach, 11-0 at home and 2-0 against the Ducks, and the Huskies are on a 13-game winning streak. Expectations soared for the Huskies this offseason, and they’ve either met or exceeded them so far.

Three good things

• 1. “Michael Penix Jr. is the best quarterback in UW history” stopped being a hot take a while ago, and now can hardly be considered much of a take at all. He has the numbers, the clutch plays and the won/loss record to make a convincing argument as all-time QB1, even as a two-year player. Consider that Penix received all 34 first-place votes in The Athletic’s weekly Heisman poll. No UW quarterback ever has enjoyed that kind of national profile, and certainly not at midseason. Oregon pressured him some, but otherwise Penix has enjoyed pass protection of similar quality to last year — UW’s four sacks allowed are tied for third-fewest in FBS — and has been even more accurate and efficient.

• 2. The receivers are a little banged up, but that has only allowed the Huskies to prove just how deep they are. Rome Odunze leads the Pac-12 — and is second in FBS — in receiving yards per game. Jalen McMillan has essentially missed 3.5 games due to injury, but Ja’Lynn Polk has stepped up to become the third-leading receiver in the conference. Germie Bernard has made encouraging contributions, and Giles Jackson made crucial plays in his season debut. The group is so loaded that redshirt freshman Denzel Boston, a training-camp star, has yet to play meaningful snaps — though the Huskies might need him soon, depending on their health situation.

• 3. The pass defense is better, despite injuries to starting safety Asa Turner (he returned against Oregon) and backup cornerback Davon Banks (he’s out for the season). Kam Fabiculanan has stepped up in Turner’s place, Oklahoma State transfer Jabbar Muhammad has been a solid No. 1 cornerback, and Mishael Powell and Dominique Hampton have benefited from position changes. UW is third in the Pac-12 in yards per pass attempt allowed, completion percentage allowed and opponent passer rating, and tied for the conference lead with eight interceptions — one more than it had all of last season.

Three bad things

• 1. Season-ending injuries to Cam Davis, Gaard Memmelaar, Matteo Mele and Davon Banks (and we’ll see what the status is for McMillan and Bernard). Parker Brailsford’s emergence is helping cover for the loss of Mele. Davis surely would have teamed with Dillon Johnson to form a solid 1-2 punch at running back. The Huskies have weathered their injuries well enough so far, but the o-line and receiver are maybe one injury away from feeling pretty thin (getting Julius Buelow back does help).

• 2. Not “bad,” necessarily, because I do think their talent at edge rusher is showing up in other ways, but I wouldn’t have guessed the Huskies would be tied for last in the conference in total sacks (7.0) — and against 243 pass attempts, second-most in the Pac-12 so far. Bralen Trice has only one sack, and is tied for 10th in the conference in hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Zion Tupuola-Fetui is tied with linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio for the team lead with two sacks. Coaches say Trice still makes a big impact, considering the attention he commands from opposing offenses, but I’d bet the staff would like to see the quarterback on the ground more often in the second half of the season. Virginia is the only Power 5 team with fewer sacks than UW.

• 3. The run defense has been less than stellar. The Huskies rank seventh in the Pac-12 in yards per rush allowed (4.04). UCLA, Oregon and Utah are the only conference teams who have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than the Huskies (6), but UW ranks 108th nationally in success rate defending the run, per cfb-graphs.com. The one caveat here: the Huskies are doing a phenomenal job of limiting explosive rushes. In fact, they are one of two FBS teams yet to allow a rush of 20 or more yards (UCLA is the other), and are tied for 10th in FBS in fewest rushes of 10 or more yards allowed (18). Opponents are succeeding at running the ball against the Huskies, but they’re doing so methodically.

Offensive MVP (non-QB)

WR Rome Odunze. He fulfilled his potential last season, and he’s been even better this year — and is on pace, through six games, to break Reggie Williams’ single-season UW record of 1,454 receiving yards. Assuming Odunze at least eclipses the 1,000-yard mark, he’ll become just the second receiver in school history to record multiple 1,000-yard seasons (Williams did it three times). He’s second on the school’s all-time list of 100-yard receiving games with 11, five behind Williams’ record of 16. Penix trusts Odunze to move the chains on intermediate routes, to pull down 50-50 throws and to use his strength and speed to gain yardage after the catch.

Defensive MVP

LB Edefuan Ulofoshio. There are a few options here — Ulofoshio, Muhammad and perhaps Trice — but no can’t-miss choices. Ulofoshio, though, is second on the team in tackles (38), tied for the team lead in sacks (2.0) and leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss. PFF also grades him higher than any regular contributor on UW’s defense (80.4), he leads the team with 16 “stops” (tackles that constitute a failure for the offense) and he has more pressures than any non-edge rusher (6).

Toughest remaining game

At USC, Nov. 4: I ranked UW’s most difficult upcoming games during the bye week, but if I had to do a re-rank, I’d at least swap Oregon State with Washington State, and probably even move the Beavs ahead of Utah. There is a growing narrative that UW’s Nov. 18 game at OSU actually should be considered the Huskies’ toughest. I can see why people think that, and perhaps it will come to fruition. But I have a hard time just chalking up any game at the Coliseum as a likely victory — UW has won there three times since 1991 — and still think Williams will be a major headache for the Huskies’ defense. Physical games in consecutive weeks against Utah (Nov. 11) and OSU, though, might represent the most taxing two-game stretch.

Six opposing players to watch

One for each team left on Washington’s schedule.

RB Cameron Skattebo, Arizona State: ASU ranks 11th in the conference in rushing yards per game, and Skattebo averages only 3.9 per carry, though the Sun Devils have been crushed by injuries on the offensive line. Skattebo also has caught 16 passes for 245 yards, and rushed for 111 yards on 20 carries at USC. He’s a tough runner who can break tackles, and has played hurt. After allowing Bucky Irving and Jordan James to combine for 190 yards on 33 carries last week, I’m curious to see how the Huskies respond.

WR Elic Ayomanor, Stanford: I suppose we should try not to overreact too much to Ayomanor’s otherworldly performance at Colorado, but man, was he dominant: 13 catches, 294 yards and three touchdowns, including a 97-yarder and a highlight-reel score in overtime. Ayomanor is now sixth in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game, and 58.7 percent of those yards (and all but one of his four touchdowns) came against the Buffaloes. Tight end Benjamin Yurosek, Stanford’s leading receiver prior to Ayomanor’s breakout, is week to week with a shoulder injury.

QB Caleb Williams, USC: Rough night for Williams in South Bend, where he threw three interceptions and was sacked six times in a 48-20 loss to the Irish. That result might sink his repeat Heisman chances, but doesn’t change anything for the Huskies. They still have to wrangle the potential No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Bo Nix didn’t use his legs all that much on Saturday, but did scramble to pick up a couple third downs (including a third-and-12), and threw one of his two touchdown passes on the move. Williams can do a lot more than that, if given the opportunity.

DE Jonah Elliss, Utah: The frontrunner for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Elliss (nine sacks, 13 TFLs) is just one reason why the Utes’ defense will stress UW’s offense unlike any other opponent. I’m looking forward to watching that chess match.

RB Damien Martinez, Oregon State: Dealing with star tackle Taliese Fuaga is a big part of dealing with Martinez, the Pac-12’s leading rusher (though second in yards per game to Cal’s Jaydn Ott). The Beavers are still really tough on the offensive line, and Martinez has carried 15-plus times in six of OSU’s seven games this season. Deshaun Fenwick is a factor, too.

QB Cam Ward, WSU: The Cougars also have a pair of star edge rushers, Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, who pose a challenge. But containing Ward will be UW’s top priority, even if some of the shine has come off the WSU quarterback after his sizzling start — he averaged just 5.6 YPA with one touchdown and three interceptions in losses to UCLA and Arizona.

Midseason Pac-12 power rankings

1. UW Huskies

Record: 6-0 (3-0 in Pac-12)
Last week: Beat Oregon, 36-33
This week: vs. Arizona State

Despite ASU’s winless conference record, the Huskies still can prove something against the Sun Devils this week: that they really do adhere to the same standard, regardless of opponent, and are immune to the prospect of an emotional hangover. Don’t discount the possibility, even if it doesn’t result in a loss.

2. Oregon

Record: 5-1 (2-1)
Last week: Lost to UW Huskies, 36-33
This week: vs. WSU

It’s not often that the entire nation watches two Pac-12 teams battle on a Saturday afternoon, then more or less concludes in unison: “Yep, those are the two best teams in the conference.” It feels indisputable after an instant classic in Seattle. The Huskies and Ducks are the top tier until further notice.

3. Oregon State

Record: 5-1 (2-1)
Last week: Beat UCLA, 36-24
This week: Idle

It was interesting to read John Canzano’s column on Dave Bartoo, who said he believes the CFP committee would rank OSU ahead of Oregon right now, based on the Beavers’ superior victories. They’re lurking, and should be 8-1 before final-boss meetings against the Huskies and Ducks.

4. Utah

Record: 5-1 (2-1)
Last week: Beat California, 34-14
This week: at USC

It’s sort of amazing what Kyle Whittingham is doing without his starting quarterback, and the Utes finding a way into their fifth conference title game in six years would just be the most Pac-12 thing ever, wouldn’t it?

5. USC

Record: 6-1 (4-0)
Last week: Lost to Notre Dame, 48-20
This week: vs. Utah

Assuming Cam Rising still isn’t playing, the Trojans better hope they can find a way to at least keep this damaged Utes offense from moving it on them. Perhaps of greater concern is the offensive line, which has not protected Williams well, and games against Washington and Oregon in November.

6. Arizona

Record: 4-3 (2-2)
Last week: Beat Washington State, 44-6
This week: Idle

Noah Fifita has won Pac-12 Freshman of the Week in consecutive weeks now, and will be an interesting player to watch in the Big 12 next season. With Colorado and Arizona State on the schedule, Jedd Fisch should get to a bowl game in Year 3.

7. UCLA

Record: 4-2 (1-2)
Last week: Lost to Oregon State, 36-24
This week: at Stanford

There’s not a game on the Bruins’ remaining schedule — at Stanford, vs. Colorado, at Arizona, vs. Arizona State, at USC, vs. California — that they can’t win. But that doesn’t mean they won’t drop a couple. UCLA’s defense makes it interesting, but 8-4 feels like the Bruins’ ceiling.

8. WSU

Record: 4-2 (1-2)
Last week: Lost to Arizona, 44-6
This week: at Oregon

It’s been all yikes for the Cougars since their 4-0 start and bye week. Saturday’s blowout loss to Arizona — at home — is the most inexplicable result in the conference this season. The Cougars have given the Ducks all kinds of trouble throughout the past eight years or so, but next week, at Arizona State, is probably where the bleeding stops.

9. Colorado

Record: 4-3 (1-3)
Last week: Lost to Stanford, 46-43 (OT)
This week: Idle

The idea of spoofing Deion Sanders on Saturday Night Live is funny, but the execution was … meh. I’d rather see Sanders himself on the Weekend Update desk, or perhaps in a skit portraying Santa Claus, surprising a young child who had forgotten the true meaning of Christmas: “Do you believe now?!”

10. California

Record: 3-4 (1-3)
Last week: Lost to Utah, 34-14
This week: Idle

The odds are against the Bears making their first bowl game since 2019. Justin Wilcox’s team is 13-22 (and 8-18 in league play) since, including losses in consecutive seasons to teams that finished with a 1-11 record (Arizona in 2021 and Colorado in 2022). They escaped that fate this year, at least.

11. Stanford

Record: 2-4 (1-3)
Last week: Beat Colorado, 46-43 (2OT)
This week: vs. UCLA

Good for first-year coach Troy Taylor, who knew to mash the “repeat play” button until Colorado proved it could stop the quick slant to Ayomanor, which it never really did. The Cardinal got their “what we’re doing is working” moment in Boulder last weekend.

12. Arizona State

Record: 1-5 (0-3)
Last week: Idle
This week: at UW Huskies

Aside from the matter of UW re-focusing after such a big win over Oregon, the Sun Devils have one other potential advantage: they were off last week. Their remaining schedule does not suggest they’re likely to win another game, but I’d still take the over on 0.5 wins the rest of the way.

Midseason Pac-12 Heisman rankings

1. QB Michael Penix Jr., UW Huskies

He leads FBS in passing yards per game, is top-four in touchdowns, yards per attempt and passer rating, and already has a signature moment. And his team is undefeated. Additional tests await, but he’s checked every box so far.

2. QB Caleb Williams, USC

An elite second half will be required for Williams to stay in the race after the blowout loss at Notre Dame, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. A Heisman-caliber performance in a victory over Washington, for example, could change things in a hurry.

3. QB Bo Nix, Oregon

If the Ducks win out and qualify for the Pac-12 championship game, Nix could make an interesting final push in Las Vegas, assuming little to no deviation from his best numbers (FBS-best 79.2 percent completions, top-five passer rating).

4. WR Rome Odunze, UW Huskies

He has 40 catches for a league-best 746 yards and six touchdowns in six games. Odunze also returned a punt for a touchdown, added another score rushing, and is earning midseason All-America recognition. I’m starting to wonder whether he might earn some third-place Heisman votes with a strong enough second half.

5. DE Jonah Elliss, Utah

Ten of his league-leading 13 tackles for loss — and seven of his league-best nine sacks — came in Utah’s last three games. He has a 90.4 defensive rating from PFF. The Utes’ defense is the only reason they’re still in the conference title hunt, and Elliss has been a force.

Still lurking: DE Laiatu Latu, UCLA; RB Damien Martinez, Oregon State; WR Troy Franklin, Oregon; QB Shedeur Sanders, Colorado.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

More on the UW Huskies

• UW Huskies’ DeBoer: How much Penix has improved since 2019
• AP Midseason Football Report: See how No. 5 UW Huskies factor in
• AP Poll: UW Huskies break into top 5 after huge win over Oregon
• No. 8 Oregon laments 4th-down failures in loss to No. 7 UW Huskies
• Caple: Takeaways from No. 7 UW Huskies’ epic win over rival Oregon

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