It took six seconds to pop the uneasy bubble billowing like purple smoke over Husky Stadium.
If you were worried that the Jimmy Lake era wasn’t actually over, that this was the same old Washington, that Kent State would provide season debut déjà vu, that the Golden Flashes might actually be Montana in deflationary guise, that a new coaching staff. and culture and strength and conditioning program will amount to little more than a marketing campaign…
Allow Asa Turner to put your worries to rest.
On UW’s first play from scrimmage Saturday night, Turner — a fourth-year junior safety — broke a pass to intercept Kent State quarterback Collin Schlee. He transformed right then into a 6-foot-3, 201-pound fist-pumping tornado, pausing only to turn the football over to a referee.
“It was kind of surreal, just when it happened on the first play of the game,” Turner said of the interception. “That’s a call we’ve been working on all this time, ever since the new staff came in. We knew it would work. We knew they were running those RPO (run-pass option) slants right there. I was just sitting there waiting for it.”
The Huskies knew it would work — so much so that their head coach actually predicted it.
“It’s crazy because before we even got out on that field, coach (Kalen) Deboer said, ‘Hey, let’s go out there, play first, defense gets a pick, or offense go score.’ I promise you that’s what he said. Just seeing that, it was very exciting to start like that, and just go down and write. It was definitely a great start to the game.”
Turner added a second interception in the third quarter, and redshirt freshman safety Manell Esteen stuck on a third down in garbage time.
Last fall, it took two-plus plays for the Huskies to force a turnover.
But this UW team is different in more ways than one.
The Husky offense didn’t hesitate to prove that in a convincing season-opening 45-20 win over Kent State on Saturday. Virginia transfer Wayne Taulapapa proved it on the Huskies’ fourth offensive play, galloping through an oversized gap for an untouched 28-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1. UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. raised both arms to the sky as Taulapapa crossed the 23-yard line, seemingly assured of the inevitable outcome.
“It’s one of the most amazing feelings, especially hearing the fans cheer right away because they can see it from the outside view,” Taulapapa said of the farewell score. “The o-line got a great block and they pushed the crowd. It felt really good.”
Penix, likewise, proved his worth — completing 26 of 39 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns (as well as 27 rushing yards) in a consistently dominant UW debut. The Indiana transfer and lively lefty connected with nine different UW receivers, with Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan leading the way.
A third-year sophomore from Las Vegas, Odunze lit up Husky Stadium – recording seven catches for 84 yards and a 4-yard score. McMillan added five catches for 87 yards and two scores, and sophomore Taj Davis connected on a 32-yard touchdown.
Following Odunze’s end zone trip, he actually shook hands with the referee.
For a prolific UW passing attack, it was that kind of night.
“We want to be able to attack side to side. I felt like we did that,” DeBoer said. “You saw screen passes to (running back) Will Nixon and some balls that were thrown to the sideline. You saw the ball being thrown vertically, and out and up the middle of the field. Jalen McMillan had a nice play (44-yard reception) in the fourth quarter. (Offensive coordinator) Ryan Grubb had a phenomenal game plan — one that made sure we got a good rhythm, but kept attacking.”
Still, this was a positive – albeit imperfect – debut for DeBoer. The Huskies managed just a single Bralen Trice sack as Schlee repeatedly fumbled under pressure. The junior quarterback completed 12 of 24 passes for 178 yards with a touchdown, two interceptions and 47 rushing yards, and running back Marquez Cooper added a 1-yard score.
“We got there (to Schlee) a lot. We’ve been there so many times, and we knew Schlee was going to be hard to bring down,” DeBoer said. “We’ve seen enough snaps of him from last fall to where we were pretty nervous about what he was going to do with his feet. We knew the run game was already what they ran their offense on, and then he was a threat with those guards … there were a few times where we had guys assigned to him and he just beat us.”
UW’s cornerbacks also had an uneven night, as Mishael Powell was hit for a 47-yard touchdown and Jordan Perryman left with an injury. (He was replaced by safety Julius Irvin, which speaks to the lack of experience in UW’s cornerback room.)
With Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon inhabiting NFL rosters, UW is different — but not better — in at least one way.
The Husky special teams were also a struggle, surrendering kick returns of 52 and 28 yards … as well as a Giles Jackson kick return.
It wasn’t perfect.
But it was positive.
And considering the incomparable stench of a 4-8 season, this sure smelled like something new.
“That last season, we really take that to heart because it was a very tough time,” said sophomore linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala, who led UW with eight tackles and a tackle for loss. “It was a very gray area most of the time. It was one of those things where we’ll never forget it, but we’ll move on from it. It helped us. It pushed us.
“You could tell, just watching that (game), the energy and the personality of the team was different. It felt like we had something to prove — not just to everybody (else), but to ourselves. It was very personal for us. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we are who we say we are.”