Washington proves it is built for the moment with College Football Playoff win over Texas
The wrong team is favored in the College Football Playoff National Championship next Monday. The Washington Huskies simply do not know how to lose.
Rather, they seem to believe they are incapable of doing so.
Rewind the clock back to Oct. 21 on a weird night under the lights in Seattle. Michael Penix Jr. threw two interceptions and Washington won a football game without scoring an offensive touchdown. The Huskies got three field goals from kicker Grady Gross and, in the fourth quarter, Mishael Powell pounced on a late Arizona State throw and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown.
Washington won that game 15-7. It was the Huskies’ third consecutive win in a game decided by 10 points or less.
“There’s a lot of teams that don’t find ways to get through that,” coach Kalen DeBoer said that day. “It was a struggle in different ways, just finding a way to get the dub, it’s huge. We can get back, go to work, learn from it, and be better because of it. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, some dominant teams get pushed to the limits in games that maybe (they) didn’t expect it to be what it is.
“Proud we found a way. Finding ways to win in different ways, with our defense today doing what they did, it only makes us stronger, only makes our team have that much more belief.”
Since that night, Washington has won seven more games that were decided by 10 points or less. No team since 1936 has done anything like what UW has this year. Since that night, Washington has grown stronger.
The latest win — a 37-31 victory over Texas Monday night in the CFP semifinal game at the Sugar Bowl — clinched a spot in the national title game for Washington.
Michael Penix Jr. (430 yards, two touchdowns) fired Washington to a lead heading into the fourth quarter. The UW defense sealed the victory with a red zone stand at the end of the game. Penix played perhaps his most impressive game of the entire season, but he didn’t win this on his own.
A field goal from Gross with 2:40 to play gave Washington a 37-28 lead. Texas, which stumbled through its offensive possessions in the first half and then barely touched the ball in the third quarter, finally came alive in the game’s final minutes. The Longhorns put together an eight-play, 68-yard drive in 85 seconds after the field goal from Gross to knock through their own field goal and drop the margin to six.
On the ensuing Washington drive, the Huskies ran three plays, gained zero yards, and then punted back to Texas with 45 seconds to play. UW ran into the return man on the punt and then gave up a 41-yard completion to put Texas on the doorstep of the red zone. For a moment, it felt like the dream season might be snatched away in the cruelest of ways.
With 10 seconds on the clock and Texas facing a third down, Powell came screaming off the edge of the line to flush quarterback Quinn Ewers from the pocket and force a throwaway.
On fourth down, the game’s final play, Elijah Jackson batted away a pass attempt to send UW through to the title game.
WHAT A DEFENSIVE STOP FROM ELIJAH JACKSON ❌
HUSKIES TO THE NATTY 🔥 pic.twitter.com/9cXldB8yCR
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 2, 2024
What you saw was belief.
Belief that, no matter the momentum, Washington can turn the tide.
Belief that, regardless of what came before, Washington can string together a sequence of winning plays.
Belief that, with the rest of the college football world doubting it, Washington can win a championship.
“We’re bred for this,” said defensive end Bralen Trice. “We prepare for this. And you can overlook us all you want, but we go out there and we prove everybody wrong every time
Penix had it rolling in the Sugar Bowl. He made a handful of passes that defied logic. Time and time and time again through the first three quarters, Penix made game-winning throws. His first completion of the night was a 77-yarder to Ja’Lynn Polk. He had a 52-yard completion to Rome Odunze that went through the most minuscule window possible. He threw a 29-yard touchdown to Polk that was tipped and caught in the endzone after just barely clearing the fingertips of a diving Texas defensive back.
But for all his heroics, Penix was rendered a spectator with the game on the line during that final possession. And it didn’t seem to worry him in the slightest.
“Watching the last drive from the sideline, it was just believing,” he said. “Coach DeBoer, he always preaches to us we’re built for this moment and we believed it. No matter the circumstances, the adversity that we went through during that drive, I know everybody on the sideline continued to believe.”
Washington scored the opening points of the game. Texas quickly equalized. Washington ran in another touchdown in the opening minutes of the second quarter. Texas answered right back with another tying touchdown. Penix hit Polk for six with 1:27 to play in the first half, then Texas pushed a score across the board with only 27 seconds left.
Back and forth we went until Washington recovered a fumble on Texas’s first offensive possession of the second half. Texas fumbled it again early in the fourth quarter and Washington jumped on it.
The fourth quarter turned into a struggle, a closing 15-minute stretch Washington didn’t expect.
“That’s the thing about us, I feel like each and every player on this team, we fell in love with the process. I think it was around fall camp, our goal was to win the national championship,” Penix said. “And some people probably didn’t believe us.
“Obviously, this was a step towards it. And it’s given us the opportunity to be able to play in that game. But we’re still motivated. We’ve still got more things we want to accomplish. And the natty is right here in front of us. And our focus is going to be on that.”
Penix called the team together for a meeting on Sunday night. DeBoer claims to not know what was discussed, but he says Penix was a man on a mission during the month of bowl prep leading into the game.
When Penix announced he was coming back for the 2023 season, and every other draft-eligible Husky chose to do the same, Washington said it wanted to win another national championship for the program. Penix said Monday night he never cared about the Heisman Trophy so long as the team’s goals were still on the table.
“The job’s not finished,” said Penix. “I feel like it’s definitely going to take more.”
And Washington believes it has what it needs.
“It’s part of our standard,” said Trice. “It’s a player-led team. We do that every single day, right? We put ourselves in those situations in practice where we’re ready when that happens. You can think we were shook out there, obviously, but we weren’t.”
They don’t know any other way.