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5 Questions with UW Dawg Pound: How can Michigan State limit Michael Penix Jr.’s impact?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Kent State at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The No. 11/9 Michigan State Spartans will travel to Seattle this week to take on the Washington Huskies in what will undoubtedly be MSU’s toughest test yet thus far into the 2022 season.

What is there to know about the Huskies? We had many questions, so we connected with our colleagues at UW Dawg Pound — SB Nation’s excellent website for all things University of Washington athletics — and spoke with John Sayler.

John provides insights on how head coach Kalen DeBoer has changed the program early on in his tenure, how Michigan State can try to slow down quarterback Michael Penix Jr., how Washington fans feel about a potential move to the Big Ten and more.

1. After a 4-8 season in 2021, Washington hired Kalen DeBoer as its head coach ahead of the 2022 season. Through two games, what improvements have you seen from the Huskies under DeBoer?

John: The difference on the offensive side has been quite significant, rolling up points with ease against lesser competition. This can’t really be overlooked after scoring just seven points in the season opener a year ago against FCS Montana. But when you have a new quarterback (with experience and a track record of success) and a new coaching staff, it’s hard to say who is more responsible for the improvement. The jury is out on the defensive side of the ball. There have been some blown coverages, as well as problems in the kick coverage. Probably the biggest difference for me is having a coach that I actually like, instead of one that was annoyingly cocky and defensive to reporters. DeBoer now faces real challenges with games that he is not expected to win by 20 points (or even win at all).

2. Michigan State fans are plenty familiar with Michael Penix Jr. from his days at Indiana. How has Penix looked so far for Washington? What can MSU’s defense do to slow Penix down?

John: Penix has been pretty spectacular. We have been told that he will get hurt this season, since he has been hurt every season, so there is a ton of talk about who the backup is. If he stays healthy this season, I think Washington is a Pac-12 contender. He is just so cool in the pocket, and uses his eyes and subtle pump fakes so well to get the defense out of position and create wide open receivers. To slow Penix, MSU will need to get pressure to make him uncomfortable, and not fall for all of his eye manipulation. If he has a clean pocket, the dude looks like Tom Brady, lobbing dimes to guys who are open by five yards.

3. Outside of Penix, who are the players on Washington’s offense that could make an impact for the Huskies?

John: Last season, the Huskies had a really hard time running the ball. With Michigan State being the first good competition of 2022, we are waiting to see if there will be any kind of rushing attack this season. Left tackle Troy Fautanu has been outstanding in his first season as a starter, and I am curious to see how he handles some better competition. There is talk that Jaxson Kirkland — a sixth-year senior left tackle who has been All-Conference a couple times — may return for this game. If he does, Fautanu will slide into the left guard position.

Washington has some really talented wide receivers in Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, plus a few more guys who will get involved in the passing game. But I turn to the offensive line as the group who will have the most impact on this game (and the season as a whole). We just don’t know if they will be improved from a year ago. If running backs Cameron Davis and Wayne Taulapapa are able to find daylight in the running game, it will open things up for Penix to do what he does.

4. On the defensive side of the ball, who are the difference-makers for the Huskies?

John: Washington has two experienced safeties in Asa Turner and Alex Cook, and they can be difference-makers in a couple of ways. Will they get badly fooled? Will they come up and try to lay a big hit without wrapping up? Or will they play sound football and create takeaways? Both of these guys have great range and speed, but that can be negated when they are out of position. MSU fans will be excited to hear that the cornerbacks have looked pretty lousy through the first two games, which is concerning when you look at what the Spartans have on the outside.

Much like the offensive line, the pass rush is something that has shown some flashes in the first two weeks, with edge rusher Bralen Trice getting into the backfield often. This is a Big Ten offensive line, however, so how the pass rush looks in this game will tell us a lot about how excited we should be going forward. The interior defense is led by Tuli Letuligasenoa, who might be the best player on the Husky defense. A year ago, the Huskies could not stop the run. Are new starting linebackers Cam Bright and Alphonzo Tuputala an upgrade from the inside linebackers who played in 2021? We’ll see.

5. Washington has been identified as another potential team the Big Ten would like to include in its expansion, and the school has reportedly had preliminary meetings with the conference. Do you think the majority of Washington fans would support this move if it were to happen? Or would UW fans rather stay in the Pac-12 and not follow teams like USC and UCLA to the Big Ten? Would you support the move personally?

John: I have been doing a lot of shoulder-shrugging when asked that question. I’m not sure if that is “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.” It’s probably a little bit of both, as in: “I have zero control over what happens, so why worry about it.” Based on the fact that every Husky fan I know has asked me “What do you think about this Big Ten stuff?,” it means that fans have not really formed an opinion (other than the fans who form an opinion about everything immediately). I’m sure we are headed toward some 40-team league broken down into a bunch of divisions that no one recognizes, which is fine. As long as there is football I really don’t care. Probably safe to say that the Pac-12 is not long for this world.

Bonus: What is your final score prediction?

John: I’m not sold on the Huskies, especially on defense. I’m pretty worried about how UW will contain the running game, combined with the one-on-one back shoulder throws to some pretty talented targets on the outside. Offensively, maybe the Dawgs are for real and can keep up. UW will need some turnovers to win this game, but I don’t think they will get enough of them.

Michigan State 34, Washington 27

Shout out to John for for providing his analysis and opinions on the Huskies. For more great coverage on Washington, be sure to follow UW Dawg Pound on Twitter.

If you are interested in my answers to John’s questions, read here.