What does Olympic rowing in 1936 have to do with the College Football Playoff at the dawn of 2024?
Plenty, if you play for the second-seeded Washington Huskies.
Shortly before departing Seattle for a Sugar Bowl semifinal matchup against Texas, Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer took the team to the movies. They watched “The Boys in the Boat,” which recounts how an underdog, eight-man crew from the University of Washington wound up representing the United States at the Berlin Games, where they beat the Nazis and won gold.
Washington tight end Jack Westover not only grew up a Huskies fan, but also attended regattas at Lake Washington — which anyone who’s watched a UW football game on TV has seen because the stadium was built along the shoreline, next to the university’s boathouse.
The film, directed by George Clooney, recounts “a big part of Huskie history,” Westover said Thursday.
His team, he said, related well to a story of kids from modest backgrounds beating out favored Ivy League crews during the US Olympic trials.
“We don’t have all the five-star recruits. We all had to work our way up. Our best players have been through a lot,” said Westover, a former walk-on. “That’s kind of what’s been our separator this year a little bit, is how we handled tough situations. We thrive in those situations where we’re counted out because we’ve all been there.”
The trip to a small cinema near campus was good for team bonding, too, offensive tackle Troy Fautanu said. One racing scene in particular, which also featured one of Washington’s oldest West Coast rivals, stood out.
“When that crew first beat Cal, oh man, you should have heard the room,” Fautanu said. “Everyone was cheering, was going crazy. It was, for sure, an awesome experience.”
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr., this season’s Heisman Trophy runner-up, is one of those Huskies whose road to success was long and difficult. He transferred to Washington after an injury-plagued four years at Indiana — and has since led the nation in yards passing the past two seasons.
In an eight-man boat, Penix noted, “Each guy has a certain job to do, and once you try to do too much and try to carry the team, when you’re supposed to be in rhythm and synch with one another, it causes the boat to slow down.”
The ’36 UW crew team was comprised of “guys that were putting in the work and trusting in each other and just went out there and were having fun and competing at a high level,” Penix said. “Whenever their number was called, they rose to the occasion, rose to the challenge and they came out on top.”
Texas will start the Sugar Bowl without safety Derrick Williams Jr., who was flagged for targeting in the second half of the Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma State.
Texas appealed the call but it was upheld, triggering a first-half suspension for Williams in its next game.
Williams is a 6-foot-2, 192-pound freshman who has seen most of his action on special teams, but has also become part of a rotation at safety that includes Kitan Crawford, Jerrin Thompson and Michael Taaffe.
Williams is seventh on the team with 39 tackles. Thompson and Taaffe are tied for the team lead with three interceptions each.
Depth at that position for Texas also took a hit when veteran Jalen Catalon, limited to eight games by injury, decided to enter the transfer portal and not stay with the team for the postseason.
Matching the hype
It didn’t take long for Alabama left tackle Kadyn Proctor to live up to his billing as a five-star recruit.
“It was sometime during fall camp when I realized, during the scrimmage that, like, he’s a dog,” linebacker Dallas Turner said. “He’s not a regular freshman that you can give the freshman treatment to.”
Proctor started all 13 games, earning recognition as a freshman All-American, and his development coincides with the improvement from the Crimson Tide offense over the course of the season.
Right tackle JC Latham pointed to the improvement Proctor has made against pass rushers who rely on speed, which came as the newcomer started to refine his body.
“He’s definitely gotten stronger, more explosive,” Latham said of Proctor, who is listed at 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds. “He’s gotten bigger, but he already came in a freak of nature.”
Turner, who finished second in the SEC with nine sacks, can vouch for that progression.
“Me and Proc actually practice against each other every day, so I’m on his side, he’s on my side,” Turner said. “Just seeing him grow from fall camp ’til now, it’s just been a blessing because he’s clearly gotten better. Some of the stuff I’ve been doing in fall camp hasn’t been working now.”
Not your average DC
Defensive coordinators often have the reputation for being among the more fiery, in-you-face coaches on a typical staff.
That’s not Texas’ Pete Kwiatkowski, who tends to be more even-keeled.
“I’m more of a reserved guy on the staff. But when I do speak, I think maybe it resonates more because everybody is looking around like, ‘Where did this come from?’” Kiwatkowski said Thursday.
His style was a dramatic change for those who were at Texas during the regime of previous head coach Tom Herman, with Todd Orlando and Chris Ash running the defense.
“You know those guys, they’re rah, rah, for real,” said fourth-year linebacker Jaylan Ford. “Then you get a guy like PK, who’s real chill, but he’s a defensive mastermind.”