Kalen DeBoer said it in passing, a throwaway line with prophetic effects.
“I still feel like a huge strength of ours is getting after the quarterback,” UW’s first-year coach mentioned Monday, despite his Huskies producing just seven sacks in their first three games. “We’ll be able to do that as we go through the season, making one-dimensional teams.”
Five days later, the Husky pass rush rewarded that faith.
In a 40-22 win over Stanford in its Pac-12 opener, No. 18 Washington amassed eight predicted sacks — its most since (perhaps appropriately) a 44-6 win over the Cardinal in 2016. Although UW was without starting cornerbacks Mishael Powell and Jordan Perryman, an unrelenting pass rush proved inescapable. Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee was a 6-foot-6, 230-pound target — absorbing blows behind a consistently collapsing line.
“It was only a matter of time,” said sophomore edge Bralen Trice. “Besides Michigan State, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just Kent State. It’s just Portland State. Just wait until conference play.’ But we’re showing y’all now. We’re ready for the rest of the conference.”
The Huskies were certainly ready for Stanford’s “slow mesh” run-pass option attack — which included McKee deciding whether to hand off or pull the ball back to pass. Trice said “my mentality was just, ‘Go get him. Don’t give him the time to read it and see everything. Go get his ass.’”
And, as it so often does, defense gave way to easy offense. With 6:32 left in the second quarter, redshirt freshman Jack McCallister produced a 39-yard punt — the Huskies’ first in the first half this season. From his own 45-yard line, McKee took a snap, dropped to pass and was incessantly swarmed — as senior edge Jeremiah Martin pried the football away while flying by. Defensive lineman Faatui Tuitele emerged with the ball from a mass of padded humanity.
At which point, the Husky offense did not hesitate.
Following a 9-yard completion to tight end Devin Culp, running back Wayne Taulapapa took a handoff and exploded around the left side — outrunning the Stanford secondary for a 34-yard score. It was the Virginia transfer’s longest career run, as the Husky captain produced his first 100-yard performance in 44 career games.
Oh, and Taulapapa also made the tackle on the ensuing kickoff.
“He’s such a solid person,” DeBoer said Saturday. “He’s so consistent. He’s hard nosed. He comes every day to work. There’s nothing flashy about him. He is just a great teammate, and obviously he was voted captain for a reason. It’s because out guys respect him so much. So I’m proud of him for really having a big day, and I would have expected nothing less from him than to grind it out, gut it out and get on special teams the very next play.”
A week after Michael Penix Jr. maximized a national spotlight in UW’s evisceration of Michigan State, his running game and pass rush cut down the visiting Cardinal. The 5-11, 207-pound Taulapapa barreled forward for 120 rushing yards, 9.2 yards per carry and the aforementioned score.
Oh, and Trice had two sacks. Martin had the touchdown-supplying sack-fumble. Zion Tupuola-Fetui added a sack-fumble in the fourth quarter, finishing with 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
“I’d say the whole room pretty much knew in the first quarter that it was going to be a great game for us,” Tupuola-Fetui said with a wide grin. “That’s all I got to say on that.”
As for Alphonzo Tuputala, the 238-pounder from Federal Way forcefully ejected running back Casey Filkins three yards into the backfield, then bombarded McKee for his second sack of the first half.
“I didn’t know he fell back,” said the sophomore linebacker, who compiled six tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks. “I was just trying to swipe, get him off of me. I went to the sideline and some of my teammates were like, ‘Bro, you threw him on his back.’ I didn’t know. I was just trying to work my move.”
But Penix also did his part. With 6:43 left in the third quarter, the strong-armed lefty unleashed a liner that wide receiver Rome Odunze corralled in tight coverage for a 30-yard score. Penix completed 22 of 37 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns, while Odunze caught eight passes for 161 yards (with a long of 61) — the first triple-digit receiving effort of the sophomore’s suddenly surging career.
“That touchdown catch … what a play,” DeBoer said of Odunze. “I keep saying it all the time: he’s one of the most coachable guys I’ve ever been around. Earlier in the game, we had the same exact call we ran and the release route was a little bit off. He and Mike talked about it, and a very similar look came up, and it’s almost like you knew that they were going to get it corrected. And they did, and they went and made a play.”
The list of Husky play makers extends to Tacoma. Wide receiver Giles Jackson and running back Will Nixon each found the end zone. Senior Peyton Henry converted field goals of 47, 35, 32 and 26 yards. McCallister uncorked a 43-yard punt that was downed at the 2-yard line. Linebacker Cam Bright had a half-sack and an interception. Junior husky nickelback Dominique Hampton produced a team-high seven tackles.
McKee completed 17 of 26 passes for 286 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, although a 78-yard score in garbage time padded his stats. The Cardinal rushed for 86 yards and 2.4 yards per carry.
But the pass rush was the story. The running game was the story. Odunze was the story.
Here’s the real story: the 18th-ranked Huskies are 4-0, months after finishing 4-8.
So, you’ll be forgiven for believing DeBoer can see the future.
You may not have seen anything yet.