The most compelling question entering the Apple Cup — at least from Washington’s point of view — seems to be whether true freshman Sam Huard will start at quarterback.
The five-star recruit has been the subject of intrigue throughout the season for the Huskies, and there is speculation that he will take the first snap on offense Friday against Washington State.
The more important question, however, is: Should Huard get the start for the Huskies?
And the answer to said query is simple: Only if he gives them the best chance of winning.
It’s hard to argue that 2021 has been anything short of a lost season for the Huskies, who sit at 4-7 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-12. They lost to FCS Montana in their opener, struggled throughout the conference slate and saw their coach, Jimmy Lake, fired just 13 games into his tenure. But winning the Apple Cup for the eighth consecutive time can help salvage what essentially has been three months of disappointment. It’s not a time for interim coach Bob Gregory to experiment.
It’s difficult to assess how effective Gregory has been for Washington since taking over for Lake earlier in the month. The Huskies lost 35-30 at home vs. Arizona State and 20-17 on the road vs. Colorado with Gregory at the helm. It’s possible, if not probable, that Washington was outperformed by more talented teams. But if there is one quibble I’ve had with Gregory, it’s that he temporarily pulled starting QB Dylan Morris in both losses.
The first substitution came after Morris led the Huskies to the end zone on their initial two drives against the Sun Devils to take a 14-0 lead. It was the best the redshirt freshman had looked all season. But on two of the next three drives, Gregory put Huard in at quarterback. Washington ended up punting both times.
I frankly have no idea if Huard is as good or better than Morris right now. It was hard to glean much from his stat line two Saturdays ago, when he finished 3 of 5 passing for 20 yards. What I do know is that the offensive momentum disappeared once Morris — who, granted, has made plenty of mistakes this season — was taken out of the game.
In fact, the same thing happened seven days later. The Huskies scored only three points after their first two drives against Colorado, but it wasn’t because they weren’t moving the ball. Morris fumbled the snap on the Buffaloes’ 3-yard line on UW’s initial possession, which Colorado recovered and ran back for a touchdown. Morris led the Huskies to the Buffaloes’ 10 on their next possession before they settled for a field goal.
Yes, there was a critical mistake but the offense was humming. Then, Patrick O’Brien replaced Morris on the next two drives, each of which ended with a three-and-out. Morris threw a touchdown pass when he came back into the game.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened had Morris been on the field for those four possessions he was sidelined. But I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that maybe — just maybe — Washington could have a shot at a bowl game if he stayed in. That still means something to the UW players and their fans — and you can bet the Apple Cup does, too.
When it comes to who starts Friday — and this may be true of other position groups as well — Gregory is likely wrestling with whether to give younger players game experience or put his best product on the field. If this is the case, he should choose the latter. If the Huskies weren’t playing their in-state rival, it might be a different story. But they are — and winning should be Priority No. 1.
If Huard is the Huskies’ top quarterback right now, by all means put him on the field. But if he is simply the QB with the most potential, he’ll have all spring and fall next year to prove why he should get the starting job.
This has been the roughest year for this UW football program in recent memory. But whether they’re winless or undefeated — if we’re talking about the Apple Cup, there’s still a lot to play for.