In instant classic, Washington proves it's the Pac-12's best
And maybe more than that.
LAS VEGAS — Standing on Allegiant Stadium’s home sideline, Washington’s euphoric evening not yet finalized, the school’s athletic director pulled a cigar from his pocket. For a brief moment, Troy Dannen allowed himself a glimpse of what awaited if the Huskies held on, if they simply moved the chains one more time against their most hated rival. The cigar is named, cleverly, “Heis(the)man,” an obvious nod to Michael Penix Jr., and it came courtesy of the Seattle Cigar Concierge. Penix lit one himself in the locker room afterward, posted up with two trophies, looking an awful lot like the picture of what he must have envisioned when he chose to return for one more season at UW.
Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.
The Washington Huskies are 13-0, champions of the Pac-12, and headed to the College Football Playoff as a viable contender for the national title. Their quarterback will be invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and after what he helped his team accomplish on Friday, he just might have a chance to win the thing.
The Oregon Ducks remain undefeated against everyone else.
If there have been sweeter victories in Washington’s history, they couldn’t number more than a handful. The Huskies achieved this 34-31 classic seemingly the only way they could have — another one-score margin, another bit of fourth-quarter redemption, another game undecided until nearly triple zeroes.
Yet this was unlike the others, even the Huskies’ prior victory over Oregon, because of the anguish that awaited if the dream had ended here. A 12-0 record wasn’t enough to gain entry into the four-team playoff. The Huskies needed to win once more, and they needed to do it as 9.5-point underdogs against the one program that would have most relished banishing them to the Fiesta Bowl.
Maybe that’s what makes it the very most satisfying win in their history: it would have been perhaps the most devastating game to lose.
But the Huskies played confident and loose, racing to a 20-3 lead that you knew wouldn’t hold up, and answering Oregon’s eventual go-ahead touchdown with two scores of their own. Be sure, UW’s players took to heart their status as underdogs — if not specifically the point spread, then at least the general sense that it should be Oregon on stage with Holly Rowe afterward, and the Ducks’ fans chanting for their Heisman-candidate quarterback.
“We definitely took that personal,” tailback Dillon Johnson said of the point spread, “and we knew coming into the game that we were going to win this game. We’ve been preaching that all this week.”
“I think about the disrespect,” said receiver Jalen McMillan, who led the team with nine catches and 131 yards. “It adds more fuel for us, and just shows that maybe some people don’t know what they’re talking about.”
McMillan missed so much time due to injury this season — “it was dark days, man,” he said — that you might have forgotten how much better Washington’s offense is with him on the field. You remember now. His 45-yard catch set up a touchdown in the second quarter, and his 31-yard catch on the final play of the third quarter set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth.
Penix came back to him once more to convert third-and-four on UW’s final possession, the clock stopped at 2:03 and Oregon still holding one timeout. Penix mentioned to a teammate that he preferred a certain play in that situation. Moments later, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb called it over the headset.
McMillan in man coverage, a quick out to the sideline, and an easy toss for six yards.
“When you get him isolated on people,” Grubb said on the field after posing for a photo with the championship trophy, “he’s going to win 90 percent of the time.”
Said coach Kalen DeBoer,: “You want your best players to win football games for you.”
It was the last of Penix’s 27 completions on 39 attempts, and capped his passing total at 319 yards — good enough to be named game MVP, even if Johnson did plenty to earn the award himself, rushing for 152 yards and clinching the win with his 18-yard burst on third-and-nine.
Washington’s sideline went wild as soon as Johnson hit the turf. DeBoer received an ice bath. The party lasted maybe another hour, players taking photos and broadcasting live on social media. Penix went to find his family in the crowd and emerged wearing a comically oversized UW ballcap, which he wore into the locker room. Jabbar Muhammad stopped mid-interview to exclaim: “That’s Marcus Peters! That’s Marcus Peters!” before posing for a photo with the former Huskies cornerback and NFL All-Pro.
He wasn’t the only UW alumnus to share in the joy. Will Dissly and Dante Pettis found players to congratulate. DeBoer shared hugs with Mario Bailey and Lincoln Kennedy, players whose own college triumphs are the only that trump what the 2023 Huskies might accomplish. DeBoer’s youngest daughter wrapped herself in the silver streamers that shot into the sky. A “Say Who” chant could be heard from players atop the stage. Ana Mari Cauce, UW’s president, wore a Pac-12 Champions hat.
Penix thrived, and Rome Odunze pulled in 102 receiving yards, but these kinds of seasons don’t unfold without contributions from unlikely sources. They need the third-string tight end with one catch all year to snag a 2-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the conference championship game; Penix said Quentin Moore “couldn’t stop smiling” during practice this week as the offense installed that play and on one rep, Grubb said, Moore leaped “about 9.5 feet high and left his feet” to make the catch.
They need Washington’s defense to do something unforeseen, like hold Bucky Irving to 20 yards rushing on nine carries, and force the Ducks three-and-out on three of their first four possessions. Edefuan Ulfoshio said he used to watch the Pac-12 championship game each year with teammate Dominique Hampton. They would talk about what they needed to do to get to this stage. This week, the senior linebacker said he was so invested in his preparation that he slept at the team facility three nights in a row.
These kinds of victories need a player like Ja’Lynn Polk, seemingly unable to grasp the football for UW’s past two games, to make five catches for 57 yards, and for two of them to cover 25 and 19 yards on the team’s final touchdown drive. As they stood on the stage together afterward, DeBoer put his arm around Polk and spoke intently into his ear.
Unlike after the previous meeting, there should be no sense that Oregon should have won this game. The Ducks did well to erase a 17-point deficit and lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the Huskies outplayed them and outcoached them.
The Washington Huskies are the best team in the Pac-12.
They will get the chance to prove they can be even more.
Their 20-game winning streak next arrives in Pasadena or New Orleans, depending on how a few other games unfold on Saturday.
The Huskies will watch those from home, in the clubhouse with a spotless record and a stogie.
“Put us on the canvas, tell us we can’t do it, make us 10-point underdogs,” Grubb said. “That’s right where we want to be.”
— Christian Caple, On Montlake