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Former Hoosiers QB Michael Penix Jr. leads Washington to national title game

APTOPIX CFP Sugar Bowl Football
Posted at 7:42 AM, Jan 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-02 07:42:26-05

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The remarkable comeback story of Michael Penix Jr. is a victory away from a perfect ending for Washington.

Penix passed for 430 yards and two touchdowns, and the Huskies held off Texas 37-31 in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night to advance to the College Football Playoff title game, earning both the sixth-year quarterback with two surgically repaired knees and the beleaguered Pac-12 a chance to go out a champion.

The second-ranked Huskies (14-0) will face No. 1 Michigan next Monday night in Houston with a 21-game winning streak, looking for their first national championship since 1991 and the Pac-12's first since Southern California in 2004.

Washington is one of 10 schools fleeing the Pac-12 for other Power Five conferences next season, with the Huskies headed to join Michigan in the Big Ten. The conference is not going away, but its days as a potential football power are likely done.

But first, the final season of the four-team playoff before expansion to 12 in 2024 comes down to a Pac-12-Big Ten matchup, just like the first when Ohio State beat Oregon.

"Huskie Nation stand up," Penix told the UW crowd in the postgame trophy ceremony. “We goin' to the natty!”

No. 3 Texas (12-2) had four shots at the end zone after getting to the Washington 12 with 15 seconds left, but Quinn Ewers missed on the last three passes. The final throw was a fade to Adonai Mitchell that was knocked away by Washington's Elijah Jackson.

“Those guys are the most resilient guys I have ever been around,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said.

In Texas' first CFP appearance and final football game as a member of the Big 12 before it goes to the Southeastern Conference, Ewers passed for 318 yards and a touchdown. But it wasn't enough against Penix and his array of talented receivers.

“They were a second away from playing for a national championship,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “They should be proud of themselves. Penix got hot and (Washington) made some big plays down the field.”

Penix spent his first four college seasons at Indiana, suffering three season-ending injuries, one to each knee and one to his throwing shoulder.

When his former offensive coordinator at Indiana, DeBoer, took over at Washington, Penix didn’t think twice before moving to Seattle, and then decided to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility and returned for a second year.

”He's been on a mission since he chose to come back, and a lot of the other guys followed his lead," DeBoer said

The left-hander stayed healthy and blossomed into a star, the Heisman Trophy runner-up this year, and now has a chance to win a national championship after another brilliant performance.

“It was the tough times. I feel like everything I've been through built me for this,” Penix said.

Penix went 29 for 38 with no turnovers. He completed 12 straight at one point, the longest on-target streak in the CFP’s 10-year history.

And he did it attacking down field as usual. He completed six passes of at least 20 yards, connecting with Rome Odunze six times for 125 yards and Ja’Lynn Polk five times for 122.

It was in some ways a perfect CFP semifinal for the last season before massive changes in college football: two teams switching conferences next season, led by star quarterbacks who transferred in.

A wild first half included a 77-yard connection with Polk on Penix’s second pass of the game, Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy II plunging into the end zone for a 1-yard TD run, a Penix-to-Polk TD pass when the receiver tipped the ball to himself and the Longhorns capping the second quarter with a long touchdown drive to tie it at 21-all at intermission.

There was a fourth-and-1 stop by Texas of Washington deep in Longhorns territory, which didn’t deter DeBoer from going for a fourth-and-1 at his own UW 33, and converting.

Penix had 255 yards in the first half alone, and then kept it rolling on the first drive of the second half, throwing a dart down the middle to Jalen McMillen for a 19-yard score.

Washington added two field goals by Grady Gross to take a 34-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. Holding the Huskies to field goals kept Texas in the game, and when Ewers found Mitchell, the Georgia transfer with two national titles, for a 1-yard score with 7:23 left, it was a one-possession game.

The Superdome sounded like Darrell K. Royal Stadium east, with Texas fans easily outnumbering the visitors from the Pacific Northwest.

Penix calmly went back to work, hitting Odunze over the shoulder for 32 yards down the sideline to set up a first-and-goal that led to the third field goal of the day for Gross, a former walk-on who was put on scholarship after hitting a walk-off winner in the Apple Cup.

That put Washington up 37-28 with 2:40 left, and had its purple-clad fans doing its best to drown out the Longhorns with a “Let’s go Huskies!” chant.

Texas kicked a field goal with 1:09 left cut the lead to six. Washington recovered an onside kick, but couldn’t kill the clock. Texas flew down the field and had an improbable comeback in sight.

“Just was looking to give my guys an opportunity to go make a play,” Ewers said of his final throws. At the end of the day, that’s all you can really do.

Washington came through in the clutch — again.

“They've done it all year, coming up with big-time stops in big-time moments,” Penix said.

The Huskies' last 10 victories have all been decided by 10 points or fewer. The close games have brought doubters.

“We're always disrespected, always made the underdogs,” said defensive end Bralen Trice, another upperclassman who returned this season to make title run.