Michael Penix Jr.’s epic night, defense’s clutch stop, gives Huskies shot at title


NEW ORLEANS — Imagine having the game of your life, just to have it be an afterthought.

That’s almost what happened to Michael Penix Jr. at the Sugar Bowl on Monday night. 

With one second left on the clock, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers had the ball in the red zone with the chance to pull off one of the most miraculous comebacks in College Football Playoff history. Ewers looked for Adonai Mitchell — a former Georgia receiver who caught a touchdown pass in last year’s national championship game — but the pass was broken up by Washington defensive back Elijah Jackson. The clock hit zero and the Huskies’ sideline took a collective sigh of relief before rushing the field.

With a dramatic 37-31 win out of the way, Washington will now play for its first CFP championship ever.

[Michigan vs. Washington: Everything to know about CFP title game matchup]

A victory that sweet wouldn’t have been possible without the quarterback stylings of Penix. The Heisman Trophy finalist put on a performance worthy of a Heisman Trophy winner, completing 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards with two touchdowns. He made six passes for 24 yards or more, one of which came right off the bat.

The Huskies came out swinging on their opening drive, when Penix heaved a 77-yard bomb to Ja’Lynn Polk. One play later, running back Dillon Johnson, who later left the field with an injury, found the end zone on a 2-yard rush to give Washington an early 7-0 lead. The Longhorns knew those kinds of shots were coming, but couldn’t do enough about it. They prepared, talked about the Huskies’ explosive passing game at length, and even had former Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski leading the charge. But when they faced Penix in real life, he was unstoppable.

That set the tone for an epic night for those wearing purple.

“With a month off, you don’t know how you’re going to come out and what type of rhythm you’re going to have,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. “I think that got Mike into a rhythm very quickly and gave us a lot of confidence that we can move the ball up and down the field.”

Sugar Bowl: Michael Penix Jr. and No. 2 Washington hold off No. 3 Texas

That’s exactly what the Huskies did all night. It didn’t matter if Texas’ defense had good coverage or tipped a pass. Penix and his receivers made play after play, likely causing the 68,791 fans inside the Superdome to knowingly or unknowingly say “Oh my gosh” out loud every time the Washington quarterback came up big.

Penix had a strong pocket presence and made every critical throw. He didn’t make mistakes. He always had an answer. If a rusher was coming, he’d check down. He had the offense humming from the start and looked confident and unafraid, even when facing Texas’ massive defensive front of 362-pound T’Vondre Sweat and 308-pound Byron Murphy. Earlier in the week, Penix agreed the Horns had a talented defense, but said, “We’re not playing, like, the 49ers D-line or the Eagles‘ D-line. So we’ll be good.” Fighting words that he backed up.

Penix carved up Texas’ secondary and didn’t get sacked once while protected by his Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line that’s only given up 11 sacks this season.

“I think he’s arguably the greatest Husky quarterback of all time,” right tackle Roger Rosengarten said after the game. “I’ll be biased because, I mean, I played with the guy for two years, and it means a lot being his blindside right tackle. In my opinion, he’s the Heisman [winner] in my eyes.

“For Michael’s legacy, this is nothing new for him. He’s that kind of player.”

There were more shots to come after that first series. In the second quarter, Penix hit Rome Odunze, who will likely be a first-round NFL Draft pick, deep for 52 yards. A few minutes later, after converting fourth-and-1 from Washington’s 33-yard line, Penix found tight end Jake Westover for 15 yards and then Polk for a 29-yard touchdown to take a 21-14 lead. That pass was tipped by Texas defensive back Malik Muhammad, but Polk had no issues catching a bobbling ball.

With the game tied 21-21 at halftime, Washington opened the second half with a quick strike to retake the lead with a 19-yard pass up the middle to Jalen McMillan on a rope. And when Texas scored or made big plays of its own, Penix responded with more magic.

“This guy really all month was on another level as far as his mission to make sure that this happened,” said DeBoer, who will lead Washington to the national championship game in just his second season as UW’s head coach. “I think you saw it all week in practice. There was just nothing he was going to let slide by where we would leave a doubt that we were going to find a way to win.”

On Sunday night, New Year’s Eve, Penix called his teammates together for a meeting. While DeBoer didn’t know what it was about, he said Penix was “sharing his mind, sharing his heart. Certainly, as the leader of this football team, those guys respond and you saw that today. Those guys play with passion, and it starts with No. 9 right here.”

But even after a stellar performance in what will go down as an instant classic CFP game, Washington nearly lost. With the Huskies leading late in the fourth quarter and hoping to run the clock out, Johnson went down with an injury, stopping the clock and essentially giving the Longhorns an extra timeout.

“It was just believing,” Penix said of his emotions on the sideline watching the Longhorns’ final drive. “Coach DeBoer, he’s always preaching to us, we’re built for this moment and we believe it. And no matter the circumstances, the adversity we went through during that drive, I know everybody on the sideline continues to believe. Continues to believe in the defense, that they were going to get that stop because they’ve done it all year. So we were just waiting for the play, and it was bound to happen.”

While the Huskies would love to win games in more convincing fashion, they’re not afraid of grinding out close ones. This was the 10th straight game they’ve won by 10 points or fewer. 

The next challenge awaits in Houston on Monday when Washington plays Michigan — a conference foe next season when the Huskies join the Big Ten — for the national title. Some of these Huskies were on the roster two years ago when they lost to the Wolverines 31-10 in Ann Arbor. And they’d like some revenge.

“Man, the job’s not finished,” Penix said. “I feel like it’s definitely going to take more. I’m going to push myself to get this team more next week. And, man, we’re just super excited for the opportunity for sure.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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