Washington respect tour continues after defeat of Texas in Rose Bowl

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NEW ORLEANS — Maybe it was because of Arizona State (15-7). Or Stanford (42-33). Or Southern California (52-42), Oregon State (22-20) or Washington State (24-21).

Perhaps it was because Washington was the champion of a disintegrating league, the Pac-12that should exist in any form for just one more game before becoming a college football footnote.

Not even those two victories against Oregon were enough to change the story. Overshadowed by three of the biggest brands in college sports, no Power Five team had ever reached the College Football Playoff undefeated and had been more secondary to championship failure than the Huskies.

For weeks – months, in fact – the Huskies have been seeking the same respect afforded to fellow playoff members Michigan, Alabama and Texas, not to mention postseason near misses Georgia and Ohio State, even the Ducks.

After going through a hectic fourth trimester to beat the Longhorns 37-31 in the Sugar Bowl, to say the Huskies deserve a little respect from coast to coast would be an understatement.

“It just adds fuel to the fire,” second-year offensive lineman Julius Buelow said. “Everyone thinks on the West Coast it's just grass court basketball. I hear this and that, we're soft or whatever. But I mean, hats off to Texas. They're the best defensive line who I played against my whole career. It was definitely a battle.

The respect seems justified. If for no other reason than quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the Huskies might have what it takes to beat Michigan and win the first unshared national championship in program history.

Penix rode his superb regular season into January with a near-perfect game — and the Huskies needed every ounce of his genius to hold off the Longhorns' late run and create the fourth undefeated championship game in playoff history playoffs.

“I thought he was so good with his feet in the pocket, resetting and making throws, things we know he can do,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. “And with a good defense like we faced in Texas today, he had to resort to all the tools he has and all the skills that make him special and make him, in my opinion, the best college football player.”

His first pass in the Sugar Bowl was a 77-yard run to Ja'Lynn Polk so beautiful it should have been wrapped in a sash and tiara. He spent enough money to open a bank account. His precision would have made an atomic clock sit up and say: Wow, this guy is on point.

From that first attempt, Penix unleashed a series of laser-guided strikes over, under and around the fingertips of Texans defenders and into the arms of the nation's best receiving corps, delivering a play that ranks next to Joe Burrow in 2019 and Trevor Lawrence. against Alabama in the 2018 national championship game as the greatest quarterback in College Football Playoff history.

“I say he’s different, bro,” junior running back Dillon Johnson said. “A once-in-a-generation arm, man. A leader. Just a guy we can rally around. I like Mike, man. We wouldn't be here without him.”

The performance marks a new high point for a quarterback whose success was accompanied by incredibly painful setbacks: Penix suffered season-ending injuries in each of his four years at Indiana before being traded to Washington and complete two injury-free seasons.

“He's been through so many different adversities,” said All-America receiver Rome Odunze, who finished with six catches for 125 yards. “I always say he was at the bottom, he was at the top, he was at the bottom again and here he is at the top, shining in the biggest moments.”

Penix finished with 29 completions on 38 attempts for 430 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He spread the ball around, with four players making at least five catches and five totaling at least 48 receiving yards.

“We are attacking,” Odunze said. “No matter when, we're in attack mode. We continue to do it. We don't change our identity because of the situation or because of different things that happen. We continue to be ourselves.”

The Huskies even showed off a new wrinkle with three runs designed for Penix, who totaled 29 carries for -18 yards during the regular season, counting sacks. He had 31 yards on those three carries as Washington and DeBoer looked for ways to compensate for the Longhorns' size and strength along the defensive line.

However, again and again, the Huskies turned to Penix and his arm to deliver one of the greatest wins in program history.

He made seven scoring shots in 12 total possessions, including one on a one-timer to bring himself to his knees before the end of the first half. Five of the goals lasted at least four minutes, two of which resulted in field goals in the third and fourth quarters that lasted more than 10 minutes.

“It’s just Mike,” Buelow said. “It doesn't surprise me, you know what I mean? He works every day. He's the same guy every day. There's a reason he's the leader of this team and there's a why we are in this situation. So it doesn't surprise me at all.

Thanks in large part to his accuracy, Penix and the offense possessed the ball for 36:20, well above Washington's season average. Texas was supposed to be able to control the line of scrimmage and push the Huskies out of their comfort zone; the opposite was true.

Flipping the script against a seemingly more physical opponent is a testament to the flexibility of this offense, the adaptability of DeBoer's plan and the Huskies' chances of doing the same against Michigan, who shares with the Longhorns a desire to control all activity along the line of scrimmage.

The Wolverines managed to make Alabama's offense one-dimensional by focusing on quarterback Jalen Milroe, who rushed for 63 yards on 21 carries but managed just 116 passing yards on 23 attempts. Michigan could try to do the same in the championship game and force the Huskies into a similarly sloppy, run-oriented heavyweight fight.

After holding off Texas, the Huskies seemed more prepared than ever to succeed against an opponent like the Wolverines.

“I think they're going to watch the film and they're going to have to do a little more homework,” Buelow said. “They can’t just exclude us, without being physical and things like that.”

And the Wolverines haven't faced a quarterback close to Penix. The closest analog might be Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa, who threw for 247 yards and completed 67.7 percent of her attempts on Nov. 18 but was undone by two interceptions in Michigan's 31-24 victory.

Penix is ​​in a different class. On the biggest stage of his career, he showed why he might be the best quarterback in college football — and why Washington is on the verge of winning a national title.

“Man, the job isn’t done,” Penix said. “I feel like it's definitely going to take more. I'm going to push myself to recruit this team more next week. And, man, we're just really excited about the opportunity, that's for sure.”

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