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Michael Penix Jr.’s magnificence carries Washington over Texas, into title game vs. Michigan

There wasn’t a single play Michael Penix Jr. couldn’t make Monday night. When Texas blanketed his receivers, the Washington quarterback fired lasers across the middle. When the Longhorns brought pressure, Penix peppered his checkdowns. And when he found his favorite weapons streaking down the field? Penix’s volley of rainbows raced Washington further toward the end zone.

In Washington’s 37-31 thrilling shootout win over Texas in the Sugar Bowl, Penix may have produced his magnum opus to launch the Huskies into a national championship game date with Michigan next Monday night.

There were 592 first-place Heisman votes given to players other than Penix. The 23-year-old played Monday night like he was trying to send personal game tape to all 592 of those voters.

Penix accounted for over 460 total yards (430 through the air, 31 on the ground) on 29-of-38 passing and a pair of touchdowns. He played both the role of orchestrator — operating five different scoring drives of eight-plus plays — and magician, thrilling the New Orleans crowd with a barrage of 20-plus yard plays. Penix was named the offensive MVP of the game, with Bralen Trice earning the defensive honor.

He fed Rome Odunze, his season-long favorite target, with six catches for 125 yards, each long strike more backbreaking than the last.

Penix and the Huskies offense didn’t take long to warm up, as he connected with Ja’Lynn Polk for a 77-yard bomb on Washington’s fourth play of the game. Running back Dillon Johnson plowed in a 2-yard score seconds later — the first of Johnson’s two scores — to open the floodgates.

Polk finished with 122 yards on five catches and a touchdown.

To Texas’ credit, the Longhorns never crumpled against the buzzsaw. Quarterback Quinn Ewers faced nonstop pressure from Washington’s relentless front seven, and when the Longhorns passer wasn’t being sacked he was often finding targets in all corners of the field.

Despite struggling to get the ball to his star receivers Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell, Ewers finished with 318 yards on 24-of-43 passing with a touchdown, while driving the Longhorns into the red zone repeatedly, resulting in three more rushing scores.

But in the end, Penix’s greatness was suffocating. Despite Ewers’ steady play, untimely turnovers meant the Longhorns managed just five offensive plays. By the time Texas got off its sixth offensive snap of the second half, Washington had racked up 13 game-swinging points.

The thrilling second half came on the heels of a neck-and-neck first half in which the two powerhouses scored three touchdowns and racked up over 500 yards before the third quarter began.

Ewers and the Longhorns kept driving until the final horn — putting together a 10-play touchdown drive of their own in the fourth quarter — but ran out of time to continue their season of destiny. With one second to play, the Longhorns had one final chance to take the lead and stun the Huskies, but Ewers’ end zone shot to Mitchell fell incomplete, saving Washington from an unthinkable comeback.

The wild final drive

After a failed onside kick attempt, Texas’ defense got a three-and-out stop and the clock stopped with 50 seconds left when Washington’s Johnson went down with an injury. That gave the Longhorns an opportunity to put together a nine-play drive in the final minute that went 56 yards, highlighted by a 41-yard catch by Jordan Whittington and a 16-yarder by Jaydon Blue.

Ewers got four shots for a touchdown pass in the final 15 seconds and the Huskies’ secondary stepped up, with safety Makell Esteen getting the game-saving pass breakup against Mitchell on the final play of the night to clinch the Huskies’ trip to the national title game. — Max Olson, senior college football writer

Penix was as close to perfect as a QB can get

Penix finished second in the Heisman Trophy race but might have won if the voting took place after the College Football Playoff. On the biggest stage of his career, he was magnificent, throwing for 430 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-38 passing.

His accuracy and arm talent were on full display throughout the game, and he began the second half by completing his first 11 passes. The Indiana transfer has been riddled with injuries throughout his career but stayed healthy in his two seasons in Seattle after rebooting his career by reuniting with new Washington coach and former Indiana OC Kalen DeBoer. His first pass of the day was a 77-yard rainbow to Polk and that was just the appetizer. Time after time, he escaped sacks and bought time before firing downfield. He’s been doing this all season, but it was a virtuoso performance with the biggest audience of his career to put Washington on the doorstep of a national title. — David Ubben, college football senior writer

Washington was an underdog, again, and won, again

Texas is No. 5 in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. Washington is No. 26. But the undefeated Huskies, rankled for a month at being underdogs again like they were against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, stayed undefeated by once again beating a more talented team. Washington, a team with nine sixth-year players including its quarterback, didn’t make the mistakes the Longhorns did to decide the game.

Other than a muffed punt in the first half, they managed the big stage and a crowd that was heavily pro-Texas inside the Superdome. The Huskies were the first team to go undefeated since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 and for the second time this season, won outright as an underdog away from home. — Ubben

What went wrong for Texas?

Texas had a few too many self-inflicted errors in critical moments against a veteran Washington squad that didn’t make many mistakes. A fumble by freshman running back CJ Baxter on Texas’ first offensive play of the second half set Washington up for an easy field goal to go up 10 points, and another fumble by Blue at the end of a 33-yard catch and run killed a possession that Texas was pushing into scoring position. Those takeaways by the Huskies loomed large in what ended up being a one-score game.

Texas’ defense deserves credit for getting clutch stops in the fourth quarter to give its offense a chance at a game-winning drive, but its secondary had a tough night against Penix and at one point let him go on a run of 12 consecutive completions and 19 of 20. Texas’ talented D-line finished with zero sacks of Penix on the night and only three tackles for loss. — Olson

What is Texas’ outlook for 2024?

Ewers has yet to announce whether he’s returning for his junior season, but that certainly seems to be the expectation as the Longhorns’ 2023 season comes to an end. There are many more key Texas players who’ll have to make NFL Draft decisions in the next few weeks, and how those all shake out will certainly impact the upside for this program going into its debut season in the SEC.

Their 2024 schedule includes some big-time ballgames including a nonconference road test at Michigan, a home game vs. Georgia and its first meeting with rival Texas A&M since 2011. Still, there’s enough exciting young talent on this roster that the expectation going forward for coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff after this breakthrough year will be contending for the 12-team College Football Playoff on an annual basis, even as they move into a much tougher conference. — Olson

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(Photo: Ken Murray / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)