Prove why you’re here.
That’s what the Washington Huskies kept saying on the sideline. On a soggy Saturday in an eerily empty stadium, they were the only ones there.
And last weekend’s 27-21 win over Oregon State could have just as easily been about everyone else. It could have been about defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike and outside linebacker Joe Tryon, both of whom declared for the 2021 NFL draft. It could have been about their expected successors, Tuli Letuligasenoa and Laiatu Latu, who missed the game with apparent injuries. It could have been about a deflated home field and 70,000 empty seats.
In other words, the Huskies could have made excuses.
Instead, they went to work.
“The guy that was in my ear was Elijah (Molden), and I know he was in the ear of a lot of guys,” said redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui. “We were able to take that energy that he was giving and kind of prove why we’re here.
“That’s what we were telling each other. We’re built for moments like this. So as a room, as a defense, for us to come through for our team was just an incredible feeling.”
And no one came through quite as forcefully as Tupuola-Fetui, who made four tackles with a pair of strip-sacks in his first career start. The 6-foot-3, 280-pounder from Pearl City, Oahu, was named the defensive lineman of the week in the Pac-12 for his efforts.
Not bad for a kid who doubted he could play college football until Washington extended his first offer in 2017.
“My goal was always to get to college, and I know I love football,” Tupuola-Fetui told the Star-Advertiser after signing with Washington. “For football to be my vehicle to college, it’s just a dream come true. I didn’t see myself playing like that, but for them to see that potential in me, it caused me to see that I could play at the next level as well.”
Of course, he wasn’t ready to contribute right away. Tupuola-Fetui — a former prep volleyball standout in Pearl City — redshirted his freshman season in 2018, then made nine tackles in 12 games behind Tryon and Bowman last season.
Then, unbeknownst to the Beavers, he stormed onto the scene Saturday night.
“Me and Zion were roommates our freshman year, and he was just always an energetic person — always working, always getting some extra time in and film in,” said UW inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, who recovered one of Tupuola-Fetui’s forced fumbles. “He actually teaches me a lot of pass-rush moves. So I learn a lot from him. So to see him get those plays, it didn’t surprise me at all. I was just turnt for him.”
Added Washington head coach Jimmy Lake after the game: “In training camp this guy was harassing all of our quarterbacks. Obviously we have the gold jerseys on our quarterbacks and you can’t touch them, but every day it was like, ‘This guy’s breathing down all of our quarterbacks’ necks.’ You could just tell that he was going to do it on game day, because he did it in practice.
“If you do it in practice, it’s going to happen in games, and it definitely happened for Zion tonight. He’s definitely going to continue to get better.”
He needs to, and he isn’t the only one. Despite Tupuola-Fetui’s theatrics, the Huskies recorded just three tackles for loss and two sacks against Oregon State. Without Letuligasenoa and Latu (and Onwuzurike and Tryon), they surrendered 167 rushing yards, 4.9 yards a carry and two rushing touchdowns.
And Saturday — with Latu’s status uncertain — Tupuola-Fetui and fellow outside linebackers Ryan Bowman, Sav’ell Smalls and Cooper McDonald will be tasked with harassing Arizona signal-caller Grant Gunnell. Last weekend, in a narrow 34-30 defeat against USC, the 6-6 sophomore completed 66.7% of his passes and threw for 286 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, while running for 40 yards as well.
Now, it’s up to Tupuola-Fetui to give Gunnell a proper welcome to Washington in a 3 p.m. kickoff Saturday on Fox.
“His pass-rush moves are even better this year. His get-off, which is his timing once the ball is snapped, is even faster this year,” Lake said of Tupuola-Fetui. “I’m just excited, again, to see him in game two and see how his game progresses.
“It wasn’t all perfect. He made some big-time splash plays. He’s got a lot of things to clean up, and it’s on him and our coaches to clean up those mistakes and get him even better for game two against Arizona.”
At 8:01 p.m. Pacific time last Saturday, Tupuola-Fetui stood on the sideline inside an empty Husky Stadium — nearly 3,000 miles from home. As a steady rain pelted his shock of golden locks, he threw his head back and released a guttural growl.
Meanwhile, Jimi Hendrix unintentionally narrated the moment through the stadium speakers.
Excuse me while I kiss the sky …
On Feb. 18, 2017, UW defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe foretold that moment, when he extended Tupuola-Fetui’s first scholarship offer. He told a kid with cratering confidence that he could play in the Pac-12.
And, against Oregon State, Tupuola-Fetui proved it.
“I was just thankful for the opportunity to go out and play,” he said after the game. “There was a lot of work put in with my unit, with my coaches. I was just thankful for how it came out. I was sitting behind guys like Joe (Tryon) for a while. I’ve got great guys in my room with Latu, Ryan Bowman. So it’s kind of pick your poison with us.
“Tonight my number got called and I’m just thankful for it.”
Vorel writes for the Seattle Times