SAN ANTONIO – For only the fifth time in school history Washington is an 11-win program, and in the eyes of head coach Kalen DeBoer, they are only just beginning.
By no means was Thursday night’s 27-20 victory over No. 20 Texas the best the Huskies have looked this season. But when the team needed a spark, they found an answer. It was just only a matter of time.
For instance, sophomore wide receiver Jalen McMillan going down to his shoelaces to secure a low pass from quarterback Michael Penix Jr. at the start of the fourth quarter. The 8-yard touchdown was McMillan’s lone score of the night, but it was just enough to lift UW over the line and down the Longhorns in their backyard.
The score capped off a trio of possessions that resulted in 17 points and chewed up over a quarter of clock from the 4:50 mark in the second quarter through the 13:01 mark in the fourth quarter. Over that same stretch of time Texas only managed one touchdown, a running back screen to freshman Jonathon Brooks, who ran past a slew of Husky defenders for a 24-yard score.
By the time the Longhorns had possession back in the fourth quarter the whole was too big to dig out from.
“Tonight was a culmination I think of everything that we’ve worked on, the things that we’ve tried to improve, especially in the latter half of the season,” DeBoer said after the win.
“You saw our physicality, I think, take that next step, and finding a way to win is something that I think we’ve really emphasized and told the guys last night, if it’s a close game, we’re going to find a way to win. Kind of that refuse-to-lose mantra has been a piece of what we’ve talked about, too.”
That physicality manifested itself in different ways throughout the night for UW.
Sophomore edge Bralen Trice – voted Alamo Bowl defensive MVP for his two-sack performance – set the tone on the second play of the game by taking down Quinn Ewers for a six-yard loss. Junior linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio followed suit with a blocked punt two plays later that gave UW a short field and resulted in a 46-yard field goal by Peyton Henry for the first points of the game.
“Just knowing that we had to come out and smack them in the mouth, set the tone right away, it kind of pushed our defense to come out swinging when we first started the game,” Trice said.
On the second play of Texas’ final drive Trice recorded his second sack of the game, another six-yard loss, which pinned the Longhorns back to their own 10-yard line. Two plays later it was over.
With his pair of sacks in the Alamo Bowl Trice finishes the season with 10, the first player to hit double-digits since Hau’oli Kikaha racked up 19 in 2014 – the first year Chris Petersen took over as head coach. Trice is second in the Pac-12 just ahead of his former teammate, UCLA edge Laiatu Latu, who could leapfrog him with a sack Friday against Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl.
A Roman-sized decision to make
Essentially every UW player that has eligibility left has already announced that they are returning in 2023, except for one.
Sophomore receiver Rome Odunze, who finished the Alamo Bowl with five receptions for 57 yards – he also dropped a heater in the end zone with :03 seconds on the clock before halftime – has yet to make a public declaration whether he will return for a fourth season or head off to the draft.
When asked directly on the field after the game if Odunze is coming back, he said “we’ll see”, while leaving the door open to take either route, fittingly. UW receivers’ coach JaMarcus Shephard has had several conversations with Odunze over the past month and doesn’t have a firm sense one way or the other what Odunze will do.
“We’ve talked about it a lot. Rome, he’s got a big decision on his hand and when he makes that decision, guess what? We’ll be excited for him one way or the other,” Shephard said.
“He’s a great young man. Beyond just football he’s just a great human being. If he chooses to go to the National Football League, guess what? We’re excited for him. That just makes us know that we put him in the position to get there and help him get there. If he chooses to come back, it’s going to be pretty scary.”
His fellow classmate, Jalen McMillan, has already announced that he’s coming back. When asked if he would sway Odunze to return for another season, he deferred to what is best for his brother, not him.
“Man… I’m not going to push Rome to come back. At the end of the day that’s my brother. I want the best for him. If going to the league is going to make him more successful, then that’s what I want for him.”
On Monday prior to the Alamo Bowl UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb shared a slightly different tone.
“Rome Odunze is still looking at things,” he said. “We still feel good about him coming back, but he’s ultimately still got to make that decision.”