SEATTLE — Jimmy Lake never heard the groans that accompany a controversial decision, the cheers for a big play, or experienced walking off the field to adulation following a victory last year.
Instead, his first season as the coach at Washington — first season as a head coach anywhere — was marked by fake noise, empty stadiums and creepy cardboard cutouts in the stands.
So it’s understandable that Lake is as excited as anyone for a semblance of a return to normalcy Saturday when No. 20 Washington opens its season hosting FCS powerhouse Montana.
Boats will again congregate in the waters of Lake Washington. Tailgate lots will be full hours prior to kickoff. And when Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” starts playing and purple smoke begins billowing outside the tunnel leading to the Washington locker room, the noise inside Husky Stadium will be the natural roar of actual fans.
“I’m just really excited for our fans, and I’m really excited for our players to play in front of fans,” Lake said. “There was just an eerie feeling going out there, we’re piping in music, pumping in fake crowd noise, and the creepy cardboard cutouts … if we ever have a pandemic again, let’s not do that. Let’s get that canceled. They’d scare me when I’d run by to go do my workout in the middle of the day and all these things are looking at me.”
Washington is calling its opener “The Return.” It’s also the unveiling what could be a pretty good team, one that should be in contention for a Pac-12 title.
Washington returns a bevy of starters on both sides and is anchored by one of the best offensive lines in the country. The Huskies have skill position talent led by cornerback Trent McDuffie, running backs Cam Davis and Richard Newton and a returning quarterback in Dylan Morris.
And they’re angry. The Huskies managed just four games last year and saw a showdown against Oregon, a spot in the Pac-12 championship game and a bowl berth wiped out due to a COVID-19 outbreak inside the program late in the season.
“I’ve watched a lot of great players here. But I think this team can be special,” Washington tight end Cade Otton said.
Montana is no cupcake FCS school to open against. The Grizzlies are a proud program that reached the 2019 FCS quarterfinals before losing to Weber State.
Last season, the Grizzlies played just two games in the spring and outscored Division II Central Washington and Big Sky foe Portland State by a combined 107-10. Montana returns 14 starters from the 2019 team that reached the quarterfinals and 20 from the truncated season last spring.
The Grizzlies are hoping for a more competitive effort than the last time they visited Seattle in 2017 and were whacked 63-7 by Washington.
“There’s all kinds of adjectives you can use to describe that but there’s only one way to slice it and that’s a demolishing,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “And I hope we’ve closed the gap some.”
AT THE HELM
Morris will make his first start for Washington with fans in the stadium after earning the job last year. He’d never started a college game when he stepped under center against Oregon State but showed exceptional promise in the four games he played.
Now he’s had a full offseason working in the system of offensive coordinator John Donovan and has a healthy group of targets around him, led by Otton. The question will be how well Washington’s wide receivers have developed and how much of an impact they can provide.
STARTING BACK UP
While Montana got a couple of games in during the spring, the opener is truly the restart for the Grizzlies. Montana opted out of playing a full conference schedule last spring. The opener Saturday comes more than 600 days since Montana’s last game that counted, when it lost to Weber State in the FCS playoffs.
“It’s a long time coming. COVID kind of derailed us for a little bit but we’re ready to get going,” quarterback Cam Humphrey said.
Washington lost its top pass rusher when Zion Tupuola-Fetui suffered a torn Achilles tendon in spring practice. Tupuola-Fetui had seven sacks in three games last season. Making up for the loss of the pressure he brought off the edge will fall to a group that includes Ryan Bowman, Sav’ell Smalls and Cooper McDonald. Bowman was the only one of the three to record a sack last season.
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