SAN ANTONIO – Scott Huff was the lone holdover from a forgettable staff and season.
And, given the Huskies’ leaky offensive line in 2021, his retention was met with indignation.
How’s this for vindication?
Behind Huff, UW’s rejuvenated line surrendered just seven sacks in 13 games — ranking second nationally in both sacks allowed (7) and sacks allowed per game (0.54). That trend continued in Thursday’s 27-20 Alamo Bowl win over No. 20 Texas (8-5), as UW kept its quarterback clean for the 10thth time in 13 games. The Huskies also rushed for 158 yards and 5.6 yards per carry against a previously stout Longhorn defensive line, and did not allow a tackle for loss for the second consecutive game.
Michael Penix Jr. — who broke Cody Pickett’s single-season passing record Thursday, finishing with 4,461 passing yards and 35 total touchdowns — was sacked just five times this fall, completing his first full college campaign.
This was comprehensive improvement up front.
It was seismic… but not surprising.
“There was a lot of evidence (last offseason) on why to keep a great coach like coach Huff,” UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said after the Apple Cup. “That’s not an industry norm, right, that you come in and take over a program and you keep a guy, especially in such a pivotal role. But meeting with coach Huff and watching his film, I broke down their film from the previous three years. And seeing how the O-line performed, to me, ’21 was an anomaly. It wasn’t the norm.
“To see the number of really elite, high level offensive linemen that have come out of this program, that Scott developed and recruited, it speaks volumes to the type of room that he could run. So I think he deserves a ton of credit.”
But there’s more to go around.
This, after all, was an aesthetically uneasy offensive line — featuring an unlikely returner recovering from offseason surgery (left guard Jaxson Kirkland), a sixth-year senior who nearly medically retired (right guard Henry Bainivalu), a junior-college transfer who waited three years for an opportunity (center Corey Luciano), and two inexperienced starting tackles (left tackle Troy Fautanu and right tackle Roger Rosengarten).
On Thursday, Kirkland — with eye-black smudged down his smiling face — said “it’s weird, my emotions … I feel nothing right now. It’s surreal. I’m in a little bit of shock. To get 11 wins, go out against a great Texas opponent, we couldn’t have finished the season better. And more importantly, after all the trials and tribulations this team has gone through, to finish a year later the way we did, it’s special.”
For Huff, his offensive line … and everyone else.
After all, it took a team to protect Washington’s standout passer.
“Mike (Penix) understands where the defense might be vulnerable,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said Thursday. “He’s directing traffic, first of all, and they’re just trusting him and what he sees, that he’ll pick up (pressure). He knows where to go with the football. The receivers get open quickly when they need to. It takes the entire offense to keep Mike upright.
“The offensive line, though, has been just so solid. Coach Scott Huff and the offensive line … every day, I just think they had a chip on their shoulder from last year and continued to build. By midseason, I think we had this level of confidence and understanding of what we could be. Every week, they kept working so hard, bringing it every day.”
You know it as a flea flicker.
At Washington, they call it “Frankenstein.”
On UW’s first snap from scrimmage Thursday, Penix handed to running back Wayne Taulapapa, who turned and tossed it back to Penix. The 6-foot-3, 213-pound lefty eluded pressure and unleashed a looping rainbow that wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk centered under for a 35-yard gain.
The play call clearly caught Texas’ defense by surprise…
And some of Washington’s offense, too.
“Coach Grubb actually told me yesterday,” Penix said on Thursday night. “He was like, ‘This is going to be the play. Don’t tell anyone. Just go out there and execute it.’ Today in walkthroughs I almost told Wayne (Taulapapa), and I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t do it.’
“I told Wayne when we went out as captains (for the coin toss), ‘Hey, we’re going Frankenstein first play.’ I held it as long as I could. We knew we were going to do it and we practiced it all week long. We knew the execution was going to be clean.”
UW’s edge effect
UW junior edge Bralen Trice snared two more sacks, giving him 10 for the season. The 6-foot-4, 269-pounder ranks second in the Pac-12 (behind USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu) in both sacks and tackles for loss (13).
But Trice — who announced this month that he’ll return for a fifth season in 2023 — was left wanting more.
“This momentum we’ve built up from all these wins and all this hard work we put in … I don’t know about you guys, but I feel like I could go out and play another game,” the Phoenix product said at the postgame news conference. “That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Jeremiah Martin, meanwhile, won’t get that opportunity. In his final game at UW, the fifth-year senior and Texas A&M transfer contributed two tackles — finishing with 40 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in a breakthrough campaign.
Back in the state of Texas, the Husky captain marveled at how far he’s come.
“It’s a loss for words at the moment,” Martin said after the win. “It’s so unreal. Not getting anywhere to start my college career and being here now, it’s probably one of the craziest feelings ever. I’m just blessed and thankful for (edge coach Eric) Schmidt, who gave me an opportunity. I’m thankful for all the guys I went to war with every single day in practice, that I battled with, the guys in the room and even the O-line and the tight ends and everything like that. Everybody really supported me along the way. I really appreciate everybody.”
- Clutching a 27-20 lead with 1:40 left, a Husky wearing No. 33 confidently fell on Texas’ onside kick. That was standout wide receiver Jalen McMillan. McMillan – who usually wears No. 11 at Washington — donned a temporary jersey for the game, since linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala (another member of the kickoff return unit) also touts No. 11. Teammates are prohibited from sharing the field while wearing the same number. But McMillan still made his presence felt.
- Here’s some Penix praise for Grubb, who earned his second offseason raise this week (bumping his salary to $2 million annually) after being pursued by Texas A&M: “I feel like we prepared the best out of everyone in the country,” Penix said. “That starts with the offensive coordinator, coach Grubb. He makes sure that we always know what the situation is. Every time we snap the ball, each and every guy, they know their assignment and what to do to be able to be successful on that play.”
- Washington reached 11 wins for just the fifth time in program history and the first time since 2016.