Washington dreams were dashed in the national title, but are the Huskies just getting started?
Edefuan Ulofoshio began his Washington career as a walk-on. He had two scholarship offers as a high school recruit out of Anchorage, Alaska. He bet on himself and took a preferred walk-on spot at UW. Football can be cruel. For those who endure, it can also be magical.
He played for Chris Petersen. Then he played for Jimmy Lake. When that era ended in disaster, Ulofoshio was left in the dark.
“When we went 4-8, I completely lost hope,” Ulofoshio said. “I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a part of a rebuilding process. I really wouldn’t be here without Coach DeBoer. He gave me something to believe in, and even when I tore my ACL three months later, he still believed in me, still pushed me, still wanted me to be a leader. Even though I couldn’t understand it, I appreciated it.”
In Nigerian, Edefuan’s name means, “the sun has risen.” His surname, Ulofoshio, translates to, “not afraid of war.”
In so many ways, the senior linebacker was the perfect leader for this football team.
It was a unique Washington team. In much broader terms, it’ll be remembered as the group that fell a step short of perfection — falling 34-13 to Michigan in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship at NRG Stadium in Houston — but to the Huskies and their fans, this team means something more.
For a national runner-up, Washington broke the mold. The Huskies sat at 26th in the 247 Talent Composite this season. They had 27 blue-chip recruits on the roster; Michigan had 47. College football has been dominated by the Alabamas and Clemsons and Georgias of the sport who replace outgoing former 5-stars with incoming former 5-stars hand over fist.
Washington wasn’t supposed to be in this game, let alone so quickly.
Kalen DeBoer was an NAIA coach and a good story at Fresno State. But in the coaching carousel of 2022, DeBoer was a footnote. Brian Kelly moved from Notre Dame to LSU. Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC. Oregon took the defensive coordinator from the national champs.
And yet the Huskies found themselves on the precipice of the program’s first national title in more than 30 years less than 24 months into the DeBoer era. He out-classed Riley in Los Angeles and outlasted Dan Lanning in Las Vegas for the conference title.
Washington wasn’t on the national championship radar when the season opened — far from it, actually. And most in the sport were slow to take on the Huskies even as they were rattling off wins any way they could get them. Unafraid of the moment, undeterred by the narrative, Washington just kept rising to the occasion. UW was an underdog against Oregon and won. Then it was an underdog against Texas in the CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl and won.
Monday’s game, quarterback Michael Penix Jr. said, was the only game we all got right this season.
“We just couldn’t make that one play here and there,” DeBoer said. “We had some self-inflicted wounds, some penalties, some plays that we are usually going to be making. We just didn’t quite make them.”
Penix was not his usual self. The Huskies’ Heisman finalist quarterback completed 27 of his 51 passes for 255 yards and two interceptions. He took accountability for an offense that throughout the season was as potent as any but on Monday was lethargic. Penix missed his receivers. His receivers made their own errors. His offensive line left him exposed far too often.
Washington’s defense opened the game by yielding 174 rushing yards in the first quarter. But then it settled in. No one expected UW to lose a game because of its offense, but the Huskies managed just one touchdown in the title fight and that wasn’t nearly enough to topple Michigan.
Mighty Michigan. With Jim Harbaugh and his 5-star quarterback and his Monstars-like lineup of defensive linemen and his battle scars.
Michigan went to the Playoff in 2021 and got its doors blown off by Georgia. It went back to the Playoff in 2022 and lost by six points in the semifinals to TCU. Under Harbaugh, the Wolverines built a team to do what they previously couldn’t — beat Ohio State. When that box was checked, Harbaugh set his sights on the Playoff. Michigan failed. Michigan learned.
Now it’s Washington’s turn.
“We came here, we wanted to win. That’s been our goal since Day 1,” Penix said.
Penix was part of a group of core players a season ago who elected to return for the 2023 campaign and push for a national championship. They never shied away from the weight of such a goal. And they often brushed off talk of individual achievements. The title was what mattered.
“They made the sacrifices, they made the commitments,” DeBoer said. “The goals that they had, the work supported it. Tonight, we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
And there were moments in Monday’s game where it felt like Washington was nearing the top.
On a fourth down in the second quarter, with Washington trailing 17-3, Ulofoshio showed blitz before bailing out at the snap of the ball and retreating to the flat. He made up ground fast enough to bat away a pass and force a turnover on downs.
Washington ran four minutes off the clock and punched it in with 42 seconds remaining to claw within seven points going into the break.
But the momentum created by that late second-quarter surge immediately evaporated when Penix was picked off on the first play of the third quarter. The two sides traded field goals and then Washington got a defensive stop to give Penix the ball in a spot to possibly tie the game. A false start on third-and-10 killed the drive.
After a three-and-out from Michigan early in the fourth, Penix found Rome Odunze for the Huskies’ biggest play of the night — 32 yards down the right sideline. It was called back for holding and, three plays later, Washington punted.
Michigan scored. Penix was intercepted on a risky fourth-down pass attempt. And that was that. Michigan added a meaningless touchdown to pad its margin and yellow confetti fell as the Huskies fled the field.
UW was beaten at the line of scrimmage rather soundly. Michigan’s 303 net rushing yards set a new championship game (BCS or CFP) record. With the Big Ten now just months away, Washington can expect its new conference peers to try and test the trenches.
“They’ve raised the standard back to where it should be in our program,” DeBoer said. “Because of what we’ve done this year, we’ll be very attractive for guys that want to come in and win championships.
“It’s just such a fine line … between winning and losing. I know what the score looks like, but I feel like that fine line was right there again tonight. We weren’t that far off. There’s not a doubt in my mind we have a good enough football team to go out there and win a national championship.”
Penix will leave. Ulofoshio will, too. Guys will make draft decisions and Washington will be faced with the challenge of reloading its winningest team in program history. Can the Huskies bottle this and keep the sun shining in Seattle?
Monday’s wounds will turn to scars. And those scars will have to matter.
They did for Michigan, a team that got tougher, a team that figured out enough wasn’t enough when a national title is concerned. The Playoff expands next season, but Washington’s road becomes even more of a gauntlet. Michigan comes to Seattle on Oct. 5. The Big Ten debut also features road games at Iowa and Penn State. And the Huskies will have to go into Autzen Stadium.
“I know this team and I know the guys that we have under us,” Penix said. “This team’s gonna be hungry again next year.”