It was nearly 70 degrees by noon on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, a cruel forecast considering what should have been. Indeed, the sun-blessed shores of Lake Washington on a day Husky Stadium sat empty. Michigan was supposed to be there, a fine baptism for new Washington coach Jimmy Lake, a banner opponent for what should have been the beginning of a new era and a damn lovely day for college football in the Pacific Northwest.
Such pleasantness eluded the lot of us in 2020. The Huskies couldn’t quite grasp it, either, save for a comeback victory that echoed off empty seats in late November. They were to play seven games once the Pac-12 figured out how to make football happen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but seven quickly became six, and six became four: A de facto Pac-12 North title game at Oregon was wiped from the calendar following a COVID-19 outbreak at UW, and even after the Huskies were awarded the North title, they had to bow out of the conference championship game because of continued virus issues. A bowl game, too, was out of the question, so Lake’s first season ended with a 3-1 record — a taste, a preview, a peek, but nothing substantial enough to reveal this program’s true identity, at least not in full.
Themes emerged, regardless. The pro-style offense Lake touted seemed to favor a run-first approach, although the sample size precludes definitive conclusions. Dylan Morris took over as the starting quarterback and acquitted himself well enough in his first four college games, even leading the Huskies back from a 21-point halftime deficit for a rousing win over Utah, by far the season’s highlight. Stopping the run was a problem and has become something of a rallying point ever since for UW’s typically stout defense. Mostly, the Huskies seemed a work in progress, and it was that feeling of arrested development that inspired several players to put in one more season at Washington, hoping to redeem what was lost in 2020.
Senior tailback Sean McGrew, for example, said he made his decision to return for his bonus season “right after we saw Oregon go to the bowl game. I just wanted to come back and win a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 championship.”
Players such as tight end Cade Otton and Jaxson Kirkland, potential NFL Draft picks, also opted to stick around as fifth-year players.
“I know they felt it was unfinished business on what happened this last fall,” Lake said. “They know we had a budding team that was just ready to break out, with only playing four games. They’re energized and enthusiastic to come back here and finish off what we didn’t get to finish last year.”
If they felt good about last year’s roster, they should like what they have in 2021, too, as the Huskies return all but four starters — 10 returning on offense, eight on defense — and with testing protocols established and vaccine doses distributed widely, there is no worry this time about whether there will be a football season. There is only wonder about what a Lake-coached team really looks like over a full schedule and just how far the Huskies were from their ceiling when last season met its unsatisfying conclusion.