Heisman or not, Michael Penix Jr. cemented his legacy in the CFP semifinal

NEW ORLEANS — Michael Penix Jr, arrived in Seattle two years ago hoping to revive his career. He’ll leave as a Huskies legend.

On the biggest stage of his career, Penix turned in his greatest performance, completing 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards as washington‘s offense mostly dumbfounded Texas in a 37-31 win in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to advance to the College Football Playoff national championship game.

,[He made the] throws that we know he’s capable of,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. “And with a good defense like we were facing in Texas today, he kind of resorted to all the tools that he has and the skill sets that make him special and make him, in my mind, the best player in college football.”

After finishing as the Heisman runner-up to LSU QB Jayden Daniels and leading the Huskies to the playoff, Penix had already secured a prominent place in UW lore, and now he has a chance to leave as perhaps the most revered figure in school history.

“I don’t know if you can transfer the Heisman Trophy or how that works, but man, he’s the best to do it in the nation, and I’ve known that for a long time,” said Washington receiver Rome Odunze, who finished with six catches for 125 yards. “Unfortunately, I feel like the media and everybody on the outside hasn’t paid close enough attention. He’s special and he’s fought through adversity, and here he is shining on the biggest stage.”

Against the Longhorns, Penix’s deep-ball accuracy and quick release were on display almost immediately. He hit Ja’Lynn Polk for a 77-yard strike on his first attempt of the game and, as he has all season, consistently found advantageous matchups the rest of the game.

When targeting the Huskies’ top three playmakers — Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Polk — Penix was 16-of-17 for 305 yards. Texas had no answer for the trio that made up arguably the most talented receiver corps in the country. Penix, who came into the game as the national leader in passing yards, eclipsed the 4,500-yard mark for the season to become the first FBS quarterback to achieve that in back-to-back seasons since Patrick Mahomes in 2015-16.

Penix was 7-of-10 for 257 yards when passing for 15-plus yards down the field and was also effective with his legs, running for 31 yards on three carries, picking up a pair of key first downs.

When Penix finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, he shrugged it off, telling teammates he cared more the team success and what they still had to play for.

“As far as the Heisman thing, that’s over, man. It doesn’t matter,” Penix said. “Right now, man, we’re looking to win the national championship. That’s been my goal since Day 1.”

Those teammates, though, were less diplomatic about the result and viewed it as a slight toward the team as a whole.

“We were super disappointed,” Odunze said. “Honestly, that was probably one of the most disappointing things we’ve experienced in the season. Fortunately, no, we haven’t had a loss, so that was kind of our loss.”

In the two seasons that Penix has been with the program — coinciding with the arrival of coach Kalen DeBoer — the Huskies are 25-2 and own the longest winning streak in the FBS at 21 games. It’s a streak that hasn’t been without a number of close calls, with the win against Texas being no exception.

Washington wasn’t able to celebrate until Texas failed to connect in the end zone from 13 yards out on three straight plays to end the game.

A lot has been made about Washington’s curious status as a betting underdog in its past two games. First, against an Oregon team it had previously beaten. Then, Monday night, against a team that emerged from an inferior conference with a loss on its record. In both cases, not only did the Huskies keep their winning streak alive, they turned in convincing performances that left no doubt as to who was the better team.

“We’ve talked about it for sure,” UW linebacker Carson Bruner said. “Pac-12 championship, we were underdogs. We won the game. This game, we were underdogs, we won. I wouldn’t be surprised for the national championship if we’re going to be underdogs again.

“We’ll go out there and we use it as fire. We love it.”

Against top-ranked michigan, which beat no. 4 Alabama in the other semifinal, the Huskies will, indeed, be underdogs again, as they opened as 4.5-point underdogs, according to ESPN BET.

In 1991, Washington’s path to the national title also went through Michigan. The Huskies beat the Wolverines 34–14 in the Rose Bowl to finish undefeated and ended the year ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll, while Miami was No. 1 in the AP poll. Washington and Michigan have played three times since, with Michigan owning a 3-1 advantage, including a 31-10 win in 2021.

The current Huskies are well versed on the ’91 team.

“We talk about the ’91 team all the time,” Odunze said. “They had a similar season to us in 1990, to our season last year. Didn’t quite make the national championship and then they had the slogan [in 1991]’Hungrier than ever.’ And that’s kind of been our mindset this year, and we’ve had that starving mindset to go and get it. We’re so close, but the job’s not done yet.”

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