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Michigan game proves to be the ultimate character test for Washington

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Michigan game proves to be the ultimate character test for Washington

Jackson Sirmon awaits the snap of the ball during the fourth quarter of Washington’s game against Montana at Husky Stadium on Sept. 4, 2021. The UW is hoping to dust off the season-opening loss when it takes on Michigan on Sept. 11 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ever since the 2020 Washington football season ended in an abrupt fashion, eyes have been focused on Sept. 11, when Washington is scheduled to travel to Michigan to face the Wolverines for the first time since 2002.

The matchup with the Wolverines was supposed to serve as a test for second-year head coach Jimmy Lake and determine whether his Huskies were ready to compete on the national stage.

But within the course of three hours on Saturday evening against Montana, all expectations went out the window in a shocking 13-7 defeat to the hands of an FCS opponent, and now it’s easy to wonder whether the Huskies will win a game at all.

“All we can do now is move forward and make amends,” Lake said. “That’s what we’re going to try to do, we’re going to work on it. What you can base that on is how we play here moving forward — that’s going to be our test. That’s going to be the result of the hard work we're putting in, how we respond from this.”

Lake is in an interesting position. Following the loss to Montana, and considering he has only coached five games at Washington, Lake had two distinct options: he either needs to blow up his current plans and restart or move on and instill confidence back into his team for the remaining 11 games of the season.

But the high level of confidence Lake has displayed both in himself and in his team throughout his first 16 months as head coach is not going to change after just one loss.

“There’s nobody we’d rather play for than coach Lake,” senior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman said. “He’s the best leader we could have, and especially in a moment like this.”

Although abandoning the original plan — especially the offensive playbook — might be what fans are looking for, that certainly wouldn’t do the team any favors in the middle of the season. 

The Huskies are sticking with what they know and preparing for a Michigan team that itself is searching for a new identity with first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

“All you can do is watch the tape,” running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. “You can’t chase ghosts; that’s what we have to focus on, [getting] our guys ready for what we see on film knowing that there’ll be tweaks here and there that we have to be ready to adjust to as the course of the game goes on.”

Bhonapha, who also serves as the special teams coordinator, admits that there is a lot the UW coaching staff can improve on to set their players up for success.

“The big thing is that the effort was there,” Bhonapha said. “The whole team played hard. The thing that we look at, us as coaches, is how we can help these guys execute better? What can we do with the game plan to help these guys execute better so things are simpler so they can get the exact looks that they want?”

Bhonapha noted that sophomore starting running back Richard Newton ran hard against Montana and took advantage of opportunities running and catching the ball. Despite the effort, though, Bhonapha said his running backs need to be cleaner in pass protection and assignments.

In the passing game, redshirt freshman quarterback Dylan Morris threw three interceptions, but Lake also took the heat and redistributed the blame for those mistakes.

“Dylan, he got hit a lot,” Lake said. “Our quarterback, he can’t get hit that much, and he got hit a ton. They called the penalties, but that takes a toll on a quarterback. It takes a toll on him being able to set his feet in the pocket and successfully deliver a throw … [and] we need to come up with a better plan to make sure our quarterback is protected, not getting hit, so he can make better decisions with the football.”

In order for the playbook to work, the Huskies must become less predictable.

Against Montana, Washington threw 13 times on 14 third downs. Snapping the ball late in the play clock allowed the Grizzlies to anticipate the snap and overwhelm the Huskies’ offensive line.

Despite holding Montana to just 13 points, the UW defense had its own struggles in the trenches. The Huskies recorded just one sack against the Grizzlies and allowed 127 rushing yards.

Facing a Michigan team that enjoys running the ball, it will be important for the Washington defense to correct the issues that have plagued it ever since the 2020 season.

With a lot to improve on, there’s nothing the Huskies are looking forward to more than getting back on the field and showing that improvement, because as every great athlete or coach knows, the best teams don’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows. Even at rock bottom, Washington knows it can only last so long.

“It sucks, what happened, but it happened,” sophomore linebacker Jackson Sirmon said. “We’re looking forward, there’s no looking back. We looked at the tape, we know what we messed up on. We know what we can do better, what we did well, and we’re going to take that moving forward. We’re full steam ahead and not looking back at anything.”

Reach Co-Sports Editor Anthony Edwards at Twitter: @edwardsanthonyb

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