Huskies, WSU: Welcome to bizarro world
It was so weird, the 2020 Pac-12 football season: Covid postponements, a mini-season, no fans in the stands, seniors playing their senior years before their senior years.
Turns out that for us unsuspecting goofs in the state of Washington, weird was just getting underway. Has there ever been a more bizarro beginning to a football season, in total, for the Huskies and Cougars?
A lot of the appeal of sports is in its surprises. Just when you think you’ve got a fix on what’s going to happen, the game throws you a curveball. Well, 2021 has thrown at the state a 12-to-6 bender that would make Bert Blyleven proud.
It was going to be so great. I thought the Huskies’ schedule set up nicely. You know, the opening, dip-your-toe-in-the-water warmup with Montana, followed by the roadie at Michigan. The Wolverines would be the perfect opponent for Washington: Big name, storied program, but one that has struggled mightily under Jim Harbaugh. You get credit for a marquee victory without the crucible of facing a top-10 opponent. After that, it’s Arkansas State, Cal and Oregon State, or a workable path to a 5-0 record, development and a puncher’s chance at a playoff berth.
Uhhh . . .
You saw the clip of the Ohio State drum major who last week ran out of the tunnel at the Horseshoe, lost his footing and did a faceplant in front of 100,000 people? The on-the-field comp for that is Washington, which is off to the most confounding start in its history. Or, at least we know Gil Dobie never did this, since he went 58-0-3 more than a century ago.
The Huskies have looked like they started practicing on Labor Day. They can’t run, which they were supposed to be able to do, and they can’t stop the run, or at least they couldn’t at Michigan. The Wolverines completed four passes that gained yardage, which no doubt would have been racy back in Gil Dobie’s day, but isn’t a recognized formula for victory in 2021.
Washington began the night with a delay-of-game penalty.
Somehow, the Husky brain trust concluded that a good call on fourth-and-4 well into Michigan territory in the first half was to hand the ball to Richard Newton. Hugh Millen, the former UW quarterback who does excellent, knowledgeable analysis on KJR radio, noted early this week that the Huskies too often drew up something schematically unsound – players asked to do something unrealistic.
“The most ill-conceived blocking scheme you could ever dream of,” Millen said of one UW play. “You put on the tape, and like every fifth play, you go, ‘What are you trying to do?’ The players aren’t as good as they thought they were, and the coaching has really got to pick up a lot.”
Vultures already have the offensive coordinator, John Donovan, in their crosshairs. But the brunt of the heat inevitably falls to Jimmy Lake, who is stirring fears among Husky faithful that the scores of assistants who didn’t make good head coaches will include him. And imagine the unease of athletic director Jen Cohen, who is witnessing this a mere six months after her other major hire, Mike Hopkins, finished 5-21 with the men’s basketball team.
The malaise through two games is so thick that you don’t even hear barbs aimed at Oregon, which shocked college football with its win at Ohio State. While the Ducks bought credibility and established a little cushion in their quest for the playoffs, the Huskies are merely trying to escape the mire of irrelevance.
You’ve got to start somewhere. And at least, as Husky fans would yap to their Cougar counterparts, our coach is vaccinated.
The Nick Rolovich saga at WSU is causing profound embarrassment. To recap, he has said he will comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate that state education workers be vaccinated by Oct. 18. It’s possible he’s already vaccinated. Or that he may seek an exemption.
We don’t know, because he isn’t saying. Because of that, Rolovich is widely presumed to be unvaccinated. But not only is he not shedding light on whether he’s vaccinated, he’s not even advancing a coherent sentence or two explaining why he isn’t offering any details, something on the order of, “I’m taking this extremely seriously and I know it causes a lot of questions, and I hope those will be answered very soon.” Instead, we get long, awkward, austere silence.
If somehow he’s vaccinated, this is a very strange way to put out a fire.
What’s happened is, as a story line, the head coach has dwarfed the program, something the Cougars thought was behind them when the last coach exited.
Funny thing is, Rolovich struck so many of the right notes early in his tenure. He reached out to help businesses in Pullman, hurting with the pandemic. He bought beers for Cougar fans. And then there he was at Pac-12 media day – to be more precise, there he wasn’t – appearing on a Zoom call when 11 other coaches were in person.
This has to be doing wonders for WSU recruiting. And it has to be tying the president, Kirk Schulz, and the athletic director, Pat Chun, in knots. My old paper, the Seattle Times, had a story today on Cindy Brunson, a noted broadcaster with almost 24,000 Twitter followers, scissoring her donation to WSU athletics. You know she’s not on an island.
On the field? The Cougars would be 2-0 right now, if not for an opening loss to 17-point underdog Utah State. In that one, WSU, nursing a slim lead, took over with five minutes left. And the state’s highest-paid employee, Rolovich, decided that naw, it wouldn’t be a good option to give the ball to Max Borghi and burn the clock — better to throw three times. The Cougars went three-and-out, Utah State drove and scored, won the game, and people went back to shaking their heads over their recalcitrant coach.
What’s the end-game here? Might Rolovich actually get cashiered in October if he fails to get the vaccine or plead an exemption? Could he be lining up litigation against WSU?
Like the trajectory of the Huskies in 2021, in a macabre sort of way I’m fascinated to find out.