Texas’ tall task: Disrupting Washington’s Michael Penix

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NEW ORLEANS — Everybody loves a rematch.

Especially when the stakes are as high as they will be here on Monday night when Texas and Washington face off in the Sugar Bowl with a spot in the national championship game on the line.

A year ago, the Huskies beat the Longhorns 27-20 in the Alamo Bowl. But much has happened since then to lead these programs to the College Football Playoff. For example, Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was the nation’s leading passer for the second straight season, throwing for 4,218 yards with 33 touchdowns to just nine interceptions on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. He’s only been sacked 11 times, and of course, was able to do all these things thanks to the protection from a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. 

Meanwhile, Texas relied on a stalwart defense, filled with more NFL talent than it’s had in a while — especially up front — to turn things around after going 5-7 in 2021 and 8-5 in 2022. The unit is a nice mix of veteran players who have been in the system for a while and young rising stars who credit their success to being so close-knit.

And therein lies the most intriguing matchup for Monday: can the Longhorns’ defense effect Penix enough to topple the Huskies? 

“I’m not going to lie, their D-line is good,” Penix said. “But at the same time, they haven’t played our O-line. They showed a lot of great things throughout the year. Their coach does a great job with their system. And they definitely play — what’s the word? — they play good ball, man.

“But I wouldn’t say, we’re not playing, like the 49ers D-line or the Eagles’ D-line. So we’ll be good.”

Will Washington’s passing game doom Texas?

Will Washington's passing game doom Texas?

The Longhorns’ defensive tandem of T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy might have something to say about that. Sweat, who won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman, is a 6-foot-4, 362-pound disruptor who “eats up a lot of space and takes multiple blockers,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. While Murphy is 6-foot-1, 301 pounds, and more explosive off the line. Together, they lead the nation’s third-best run defense, limiting opponents to 80.8 rushing yards per game. They’ve held teams under 100 yards rushing in eight of 13 games, and most recently kept college football’s top running back Ollie Gordon of Oklahoma State to 34 rushing yards during the Big 12 championship.

“You’ve got to block him,” Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said specifically about Sweat. “You got to keep bodies on him all the time. And you have to try to wear him out. He’s a talented, athletic player.”

The Sweat-Murphy duo has combined for seven sacks, 16 tackles for loss and … two touchdowns? That’s right, they’ve both put points on the board, with Murphy scoring in the third game of the year vs. Wyoming and Sweat getting his — and striking the Heisman pose to celebrate — in the conference title game. 

Texas, Washington square off in epic matchup

Texas, Washington square off in epic matchup

“They were good last year, too,” Penix said. “They usually have big boys over there on that side that can make plays. But I don’t know. You see it on film, but at the same time, you’re watching a game against Texas Tech, K-State, all the teams they play, and I don’t feel like those teams have the offensive line that we have. So it’s like, we’ll have to see when it comes game day. I’m not going to discredit their talent. They’ve got talent. But it will be different when we play them.”

Washington will be the most prolific passing attack Texas has seen since its loss to Oklahoma in early October. Penix has an embarrassment of riches on the perimeter, including two 1,000-yard receivers in Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk, and can get the ball out in various ways. 

“He could be looking one way and then flick the ball the other way,” said Kwiatkowski, who coached at Washington from 2014-2020 and is best friends with Huskies’ offensive line coach, Scott Huff. “[Penix] has got good touch and good accuracy. And he’s got really good receivers he’s throwing to. 

“We know how good he is from last year playing him and watching him all year long. We know what kind of challenge we’ve got Monday.”

Time will tell. Washington’s offense is ranked second nationally with 71 plays of 20 yards or more, and 36 for 30 yards or more, while Texas has given up 40 and 21 in those categories, respectively. If the Longhorns are going to have success defensively, they need to keep the game on the ground and limit those explosive plays through the air.

Texas vs. Washington: Sugar Bowl best bets, predictions and odds

Texas vs. Washington: Sugar Bowl best bets, predictions and odds

“The thing that will get them going is shots,” said Texas defensive back Jahdae Barron. “They thrive off shots and want to catch the defense slipping. They try to do a lot of formations just to trick teams in the back end of having miscommunications, wide-open people, offside and things of that sort. We just have to stay mentally engaged and not worry about the outside noise or get caught up in what type of game it is.”

And of course, all of that Husky success starts up front. And the Horns’ defense is eager to make a statement.

“I mean, let me see how I can say this,” Sweat said. “They’re a great group of guys, the O-line. They won awards. They’re just awards to me, you know what I mean? And they’ve got to face guys like us, so we’ll see how it goes down.”

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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