Washington tops Texas in Sugar Bowl, seals CFP final spot


NEW ORLEANS — Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. turned in one of the most dominant performances in College Football Playoff history on Monday night. Yet there he stood on the sideline with one second remaining on the clock, watching as Texas stood 13 yards away from completing an improbable comeback.

Quinn Ewers took the fourth-down snap and threw the ball into the corner of the end zone for Adonai Mitchell. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Ewers threw to Mitchell at nearly the same spot for a 1-yard score. Washington’s Elijah Jackson was on the coverage for that touchdown.

He was on the coverage again with the game on the line. Jackson said he knew Ewers would look to Mitchell again. The cornerback was ready this time. Jackson leaped into the air to bat the ball away as time expired, sealing a wild 37-31 win for the Huskies in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Now, Washington will play Michigan in the CFP national title game on Jan. 8 in Houston for the Huskies’ first national championship opportunity since 1991. All Jackson could think after he made the play was, “Dang, we’re going to the national championship!” Then he went to find his mom in the stands.

“That’s the moment people dream of,” Jackson said. “Everybody wants the last play. Everybody wants the game on their shoulders.”

Though Penix threw for 430 yards — the fourth-best passing game in CFP history — Washington could never quite get complete control. Texas made it a one-score game twice in the final seven minutes as it attempted to erase a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit. After closing to 37-31 with 1:09 remaining, Texas attempted an onside kick, but Washington recovered.

After forcing a three-and-out, Texas got the ball back with 45 seconds left and the ball at its 31-yard line. The Longhorns had four attempts to win the game from inside the Huskies’ 15-yard line. But Washington would prevail for its 21st consecutive victory.

“You love seeing a team come through and find a way to win,” Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer said. “The defense had to stay out there and play every down until the very end. So proud of the resiliency and finding another way to win a football game.”

When it was all said and done, Penix went 29-of-38 passing for 430 yards and two touchdowns. As a result, he became the first player with multiple 4,500-yard passing seasons in Pac-12 history.

The decision Penix made to come to Washington in 2022 has helped change the trajectory of the Huskies’ football program. But that all started with the hiring of DeBoer, an offensive mastermind who won three NAIA championships as head coach at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota before working his way up the FBS ranks and landing at Washington.

One of DeBoer’s first phone calls after taking the job was to Penix, whom he had coached for one season as offensive coordinator at Indiana. Penix wanted to play for DeBoer, noting his comfort level, trust and belief in him not only as a coach but an offensive innovator. In their two years together at Washington, they have won 25 of 27 games and are on the precipice of accomplishing something much greater.

“He set the tone pretty quickly, just made all the throws,” DeBoer said. “This guy really all month was on another level as far as his mission to make sure that this happened, and I think you saw it all week in practice. There was just nothing he was going to let slide by where we would leave a doubt that we were going to find a way to win.”

The program has been more than just Penix, of course. While DeBoer has done an excellent job using the transfer portal, he also has nine sixth-year players who started their careers at Washington under a different coaching staff but were willing to buy in and believe in his message too.

There are other veteran seniors too, including wide receiver Rome Odunze and linebacker Bralen Trice, who have taken the lead in helping establish the culture DeBoer wanted to instill.

Despite everything this team has accomplished this season, Washington went into its semifinal against the Longhorns as the underdog — the second straight game where it was not favored to win. That irked the Huskies to the point where they used it as extra motivation.

Not long after the Huskies advanced, they were already installed as underdogs — again. The Wolverines opened as 5-point favorites at sportsbook ESPN BET, with the over/under total at 55.5.

“I just think we prove everybody wrong time and time again, and we’ll continue to do that,” Trice said. “You can overlook us all you want, but we go out there and we prove everybody wrong every time.”

Penix, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, took center stage from the start on Monday, dropping one pinpoint pass after another to his deep and talented receiver group. There was a 77-yarder to Ja’Lynn Polk on the opening drive. Then a deep pass over the middle to Odunze. It went on like this the entire game, some beautiful rainbows, others darts and all of them landing where only his receivers could catch them.

Polk and Odunze each had 100 yards receiving as a result. By the time the third quarter ended, Penix had 372 yards passing, two touchdowns and just four incompletions as the Washington fans chanted, “Let’s go, Huskies!”

“I got the best playmakers on the outside. So, they make it easy,” Penix said.

Though Washington threatened to blow the game open after going up 34-21 early in the fourth quarter, Texas hung around, and its defense stepped up to keep the Longhorns in the game. After Texas running back Jaydon Blue fumbled, Washington could not take advantage and was forced to punt.

On the ensuing drive, Ewers threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell, a transfer from Georgia, to make it 34-28. Mitchell is automatic in the CFP, with a touchdown reception in all five CFP games in which he has played.

“That’s the moment people dream of. Everybody wants the last play. Everybody wants the game on their shoulders.”

Washington CB Elijah Jackson

On the next possession, Penix did what was needed to move Washington down the field, including a 32-yard pass to Odunze down the left sideline that was enough to get into field goal range and make it a two-score game before Texas attempted one last comeback.

“The resiliency our team showed in that fourth quarter to find a way to have an opportunity to win the game, I think, is indicative of the character that we have on this team and the men that we have in that locker room,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Those guys are fighters. These fought together. As bleak as it looked there, they never gave up hope, and they believed. And I think that’s how you give yourself a chance at the end.”

Ewers said on the final two plays — both passes — he was “just looking to give my guys an opportunity to go make a play. At the end of the day, that’s all you can really do.”

Ewers finished 24-of-43 for 318 yards and a score. Afterward, the emotions on his face were clear as he fought back tears when he entered the postgame news conference.

“It’s tough, especially losing a close game like this,” Ewers said. “But when you take a step back and you look back at the entire season, I’m proud of the way that we attacked each week. I know the whole team is beyond grateful for this opportunity that we had today, and I think we all played our hearts out.”

Texas just came up one play short. Instead, the spotlight belonged to Penix and the Huskies.

“The job’s not finished,” Penix said. “I feel like it’s definitely going to take more. I’m going to push myself to get this team more next week. And, man, we’re just super excited for the opportunity.”

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