Gold: Michael Penix is the Heisman contender we aren't talking enough about
On a weekend in which the Pac-12 slate looked more like a butcher shop, only one game promised even a hint of drama and intrigue. And Washington’s trip to East Lansing on Saturday afternoon did indeed offer an ounce of suspense.
Literally an ounce. For all of one play.
Michael Penix Jr. connected with Jalen McMillan for a 39-yard pass on the Huskies’ first play of the game, and that was that.
Forty minutes of game time later, Penix was dancing on the sidelines with his day over early, as Washington built a 41-point lead in a game it would go on to win 41-7. So much for drama and intrigue.
But not every good show demands drama, begs for intrigue. Sometimes it’s fun to just sit back and watch and imagine what is possible.
And it’s becoming increasingly possible that we’ll see Penix in New York City come December. In fact, he has the 2nd-best Heisman odds to actually win the trophy.
What Penix has done through the season’s first 3 weeks is nothing short of extraordinary.
Penix leads the country in passing yardage and passing yards per game. Just 11 quarterbacks in the nation are averaging more than 300 yards per game; Penix is at 444 yards per game, 114 more than his Apple Cup companion, Washington State’s Cameron Ward, who is 3rd in the rankings. Penx is tied for 2nd in the nation (with USC’s Caleb Williams, his primary Heisman competition) with 12 touchdown passes. They both trail Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman, but Hartman has 13 scores in 4 games, not 3, like Penix and Williams.
Penix also ranks 4th in passing efficiency with a 206.63 rating, trailing Williams, Hartman and Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel. But Penix has done it against better competition.
And, quite frankly, he’s looked better doing it. He hasn’t had to dip into the absurdist escapism of the elusive Williams, and while Hartman has looked terrific in leading the Fighting Irish to a 4-0 start, Notre Dame has played some truly bad teams. (That will change Saturday when the Irish host Ohio State.)
In Week 1, Washington handled Mountain West preseason favorite Boise State with ease in a 56-19 win. Penix had a ridiculous 450 yards and 5 touchdowns, besting a presumably good Broncos defense for 29-of-40 passing. A week later, in arguably a Washington’s easiest game of the year, Penix torched Tulsa for 409 yards and 3 scores with his lone interception of the year.
On Saturday against a distracted but talented Michigan State team, Penix was on fire. At a certain point it became clear that the only uncertainty about Saturday’s game would be if Penix would break his Washington record of 516 passing yards.
Had he played any later than 2 minutes, 57 seconds into the 3rd quarter, Penix probably would have shattered his record.
He’d settle for 3rd on the Huskies’ all-time list (he also claims the No. 2 spot) with 473 passing yards on 27-of-35 passing, to go with 4 touchdown passes in yet another Heisman audition, this one on the road in Big Ten country. Washington would have a day, finishing with 713 yards of total offense, its most prolific day since putting up 734 again San Jose State in 1996, and second-best ever.
— Jim Thornby (@jthornby) September 17, 2023
And Penix was his typically diplomatic self, spreading the love to Rome Odunze (8 receptions for 180 yards), Ja’Lynn Polk (5 receptions, 118 yards, 1 touchdown) and Jalen McMillan (4 receptions, 96 yards). He even hit tight end Jack Westover for 3 scores.
“I think he’s the best quarterback in the nation. Week in, week out he goes out there and proves it,” Odunze said after the game, according to the Seattle Times’ Mike Vorel. “He’s him. He really does this. I see it all the time. I see it every day in practice. So I know that’s him. I know he’s got even more in the tank. I’m just excited that you guys get to see.”
The best way to describe watching the ball come off Penix’s fingertips is like someone throwing a frisbee or snapping a whip. It is not a casual toss. It’s a fling. A flick. Instant. Decisive.
And the fact that he’s left-handed makes it all the more special. It’s almost like defenses don’t understand the angle that the offense is operating from.
They most certainly don’t understand the speed, both before the snap and after it.
Penix operates offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb’s pre-snap motion like a conductor. And there is a lot of it. Grubb likes to keep defenses and cameramen guessing, but it takes a QB with Penix’s poise and acumen to pull it off.
Like Penix, who certainly could have been an early NFL Draft pick after leading the country in passing yardage per game last season, Grubb could have left as well. He had a much-publicized offer from Nick Saban to become Alabama’s offensive coordinator, but chose to return to Seattle, getting a hefty salary bump in the process.
After becoming Nick Saban's top target for the Crimson Tide's open OC position, Washington raised Ryan Grubb's salary to $2 million per year.
3 play action plays from his💰offensive scheme: pic.twitter.com/iIKoUBwV3e
— PreSnap (@presnapinc) May 18, 2023
Both Penix and Grubb are better off for each other’s return, DeBoer most of all.
After Saturday’s win over Michigan State, Grubb had some lofty praise for his protege.
“This game was the highest I’ve ever graded him,” he told reporters. “He played not a flawless football game, but I knew early on there was a couple plays that were shot plays that were designed to go down the field and he went through his progression pretty quickly and checked the ball down. When I see that, I know he’s on point and knows exactly where the ball is supposed to be going and not try and force it. He does such a great job of believing in the system and knowing that there is going to be another opportunity to get the football down the field and I think that’s what, in this system for any quarterback, that’s what feels good. You don’t feel like you have to get the ball down the field on that play because … you’ll be able to get it to another guy.”
Can all this momentum lead him straight to the Heisman podium?
If he plays like this all year, yes.
He doesn’t have the target on his back and the weight of expectations like Williams. He doesn’t have a schedule like Hartman, whose Irish face Ohio State, Duke and USC in the next month. If anything, the Huskies have a forgiving schedule until November, with only one more true test coming on Oct. 14 with Oregon heading to Husky Stadium.
But a final month that includes USC, Utah, Oregon State and Washington State will tell the tale, for both Penix’s Heisman hopes and UDub’s Playoff push.
Get through that unscathed, and there is no question Penix will find himself moving from the Apple Cup to the Big Apple come December.