College Football & Soccer Analyst
NEW ORLEANS — The thing about Michael Penix Jr. and Washington’s offense is that it doesn’t matter how good the opposing defense plays. The coverage could be great. A pass could be tipped. The window could be tight. And yet, Penix and his army of talented receivers can make magic happen.
That’s what happened here at the Sugar Bowl on Monday night when Washington escaped with a 37-31 win over Texas. This was the seventh game the Huskies have won by a touchdown or less this season.
Penix went 29-of-38 for 430 yards and two touchdowns. He made six passes for 24 yards or more. He was cool and calm in the pocket. He got the ball out quickly when he needed to. He never seemed panicked, even while staring down a Texas defensive front that featured future NFL linemen like the 362-pound T’Vondre Sweat and the 308-pound Byron Murphy. That’s what having a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line can do for you.
The Longhorns had a month to prepare for the nation’s most lethal passing game. They knew what they were up against, having faced it a year ago in the Alamo Bowl. Head coach Steve Sarkisian talked about this all week. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who spent seven seasons coaching for the Huskies, talked about it all week. Limit Washington’s shots downfield and keep the game on the ground.
One of the main storylines entering this College Football Playoff semifinal was how Texas’ secondary — its noted weak link — would handle Penix and his high-flying attack. While the reaction from fans may be to immediately criticize Texas’ defense, credit must be given to Penix and his knack for the explosive play. He had the Horns on their heels.
The mark of a good team is when you know your opponent knows what you’re going to do and you’re unstoppable anyway. And it wasn’t even just the passing game. Washington was physical running the ball and on defense, too.
At kickoff and even into the second half, Texas cheers drowned out Washington fans. This made sense, given the Longhorns outnumbered the Huskies at the Superdome. Some Texas fans left early, missing the dramatic final minute in which the Horns went on a near-game-winning drive to ruin everything. But with one second remaining, quarterback Quinn Ewers failed to connect with receiver Adonai Mitchell, ending the game. Washington rushed the field and Prince’s “Purple Rain” rang throughout the stadium.
Now it will be Washington that heads to Houston next week to face Michigan in what should be an epic national championship game between two future Big Ten foes.
Michael Penix Jr. and No. 2 Washington hold off No. 3 Texas
“Bring it on, let’s go,” Washington defensive lineman Bralen Trice said.
Here are takeaways from a thrilling Sugar Bowl:
Player of the game
No question about it — Michael Penix Jr.
The Heisman Trophy finalist played like a Heisman Trophy winner against Texas. His stats speak for themselves, but in addition to those, he didn’t make many mistakes. He always had an answer. If a rusher was coming, he’d check down. He threw dime after dime and, at times, was laughing in between snaps. He was loose and having fun and playing like his NFL draft stock should be higher.
He outplayed Ewers, who went 24-of-43 for 318 yards and a touchdown. Ewers also had 54 rushing yards and had a chance to win the game at the end.
Play of the game
Given the amount of shots Penix took, it’s hard to choose.
There was the 77-yard bomb to Ja’Lynn Polk on Washington’s first series of the game. One play later, running back Dillon Johnson found the end zone on a two-yard rush to put his team up 7-0 early. This was the exact kind of thing Texas expected from Washington out of the gate, and still had no answer for it.
In the second quarter, there was the 52-yard heave to Rome Odunze, who made a beautiful contested catch. While the Huskies didn’t score on that drive, this was another example of what Penix can do when he has time in the pocket.
A few minutes later, after converting on fourth-and-1 from their own 33-yard line, Penix found tight end Jake Westover for 15 yards, before taking a deep shot and hitting Polk for a 29-yard touchdown to go up 21-14. Penix’s pass was tipped by Texas defensive back Malik Muhammed tipped the pass, but Polk caught it anyway.
With the score tied 21-21 at halftime, Washington opened the second half with a quick strike to regain a 28-21 lead. Penix led his crew downfield and found Jalen McMillan for a 19-yard touchdown, which set the tone for the rest of the half.
Turning point of the game
With Washington leading late in the fourth quarter and hoping to run the clock out, running back Dillon Johnson went down with an injury, stopping the clock and essentially giving Texas an extra timeout.
With less than a minute on the clock, Ewers drove the Horns down the field. He hauled a deep 41-yard ball to veteran receiver Jordan Whittington on third down with 30 seconds left. Then found Jaydon Blue for 16 yards. The catch was reviewed, giving Texas fans plenty of time to scream their heads off.
But that would be Ewers’ last completion. After a few more tries, the Longhorns had one second left on the clock for a final play. Ewers looked for Mitchell, but it was broken up by Elijah Jackson to preserve a Husky victory.
What’s next for Washington?
Washington will play in its first-ever national championship game against Michigan next week in Houston. They were ranked No. 1 in the Coaches Poll in 1991 and won a share of the national title (Miami was No. 1 in the AP poll). And they made the CFP in 2016, but Alabama beat them 24-7 in the semifinal.
So this is a monumental accomplishment, especially for Kalen DeBoer in just his second season as UW’s head coach.
Now they play the Wolverines in what can be considered by some as a Big Ten showdown given the Huskies will join the conference next year. It will give DeBoer a glimpse of what he’ll be working with next season, facing the conference’s top dog and reigning three-time league champion.
Given the way Penix performed against a talented Texas defense, it will be extra juicy to watch how he and his offensive line matchup against Michigan and its No. 1 defense. The Wolverines sacked Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe six times. Texas couldn’t get pressure on Penix, who took zero sacks despite saying that was a priority for them this week.
What’s next for Texas?
The Longhorns will have to wait a little longer to return to the national championship. But despite falling short in its first-ever CFP appearance, Sarkisian’s team looks like it could be a contender for a long time.
Texas joins the SEC next year and we still don’t know who the quarterback will be. Quinn Ewers would not divulge his plans earlier this week. Is he going to the NFL? Is he coming back for another year? What does that mean for Arch Manning?
Texas will lose its defensive stalwarts like Sweat and Murphy and playmakers like Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell. But one thing Sarkisian doesn’t lack is depth, and his team is only going to get stronger, recently picking up the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class in the country according to 247 Sports. They could also dip into the transfer portal and find a gem or two – that’s what happened when Mitchell came over from Georgia last year.
Not making it to the title game on home turf in Houston has to hurt. But Sarkisian has to be happy — he’s finally built a culture and identity that seems built to last.
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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