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Be like Mike: Irrepressible Penix authors a CFP masterpiece

In Sports
January 02, 2024

NEW ORLEANS — Be like Mike.

No, not MJ. Be like MP.

Be like Michael Penix. Or “Michael Freaking Penix (MFP),” as one Washington coach put it.

Rebound from four season-ending injuries and then lead a new team to the national championship game with one of the greatest quarterback games in College Football Playoff history.

Be like Mike. Throw for 430 yards, two touchdowns and complete 76 percent of your passes against the No. 3 ranked team in the country.

Be like Mike. Thread the needle on a 29-yard touchdown on a crossing pattern while also dropping perfectly a 77-yard deep ball down the sideline.

Be like Mike. Humble, honest, heroic.

Michael Penix’s story — the latest chapter of which was Washington’s 37-31 win over Texas in the Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal — is what we all root for in college football. It’s why, no matter the off-field mayhem (oh, there’s plenty!), the sport’s product on the field remains stellar.

Fun, exciting and, in Penix’s case, quite unbelievable.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01: Michael Penix Jr. #9 of the Washington Huskies celebrates with fans after a 37-31 victory against the Texas Longhorns in the CFP Semifinal Allstate Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome on January 01, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

As unassuming and humble as Michael Penix Jr. is off the field, the Washington QB was lethal with the ball in his hands in Monday’s Sugar Bowl win over Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

From an injury-plagued and struggling run at Indiana to a miraculous stretch at Washington that’s produced a runner-up Heisman Trophy finish, Pac-12 championship and, maybe soon, a national title.

“I wouldn’t change my journey for anything,” Penix said afterward. “If I had to get hurt four times to get to this point, it was all worth it.”

This fun-filled, comeback story is playing out before a backdrop of off-the-field drama — a conference realignment wave that has the Pac-12 one win away from a football championship in its final year of existence as we’ve known it.

On Monday, off-the-field drama met on-the-field fun.

In the midst of a purple-splashed celebration on Monday night on the Superdome turf, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff described Washington’s run, in light of his league’s collapse, “surreal.”

“Proud of the kids. These guys are great, great kids. They don’t deserve all the nonsense going on around them,” Kliavkoff said after leaving the on-field podium celebration. “We were focused on rebuilding football. Took 2 1/2 years. I wish it would have happened quicker. If some of our schools would have been a little more patient, I think it would have paid off.”

One of those schools: Washington. UW decided with Oregon to bail on the Pac-12 and its Apple TV deal for the Big Ten (more important, of course, were the announced departures the year before of USC and UCLA, and then Colorado too).

If things weren’t already awkward enough, along with Kliavkoff, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark attended Monday’s game as well — each commissioner supporting a participant that in seven months will be exiting their conference.

Fitting? Very much so.

It’s indicative of this era of college sports.

“There’s a part of me that’s bummed out. Obviously, the conference showed out [this season],” Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb told Yahoo Sports amid the celebration. “It showed there is really good football to be played out on the West Coast. You go out with a bang with a chance to be on top. We can show everybody that West Coast football is pretty damn good.”

But enough about conference realignment, enough about commissioners and conferences.

Washington, underdogs in its last two games, is on its way to compete for the school’s first national championship in 33 years, with a second-year offensive guru of a coach, hotshot coordinator and quarterback who, few will argue, is the best player remaining in college football’s postseason.

“He made all the throws,” said Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer.

All of them. The post route. The go route. The corner. The cross.

A side-arm sling. A fastball rocket. A deep heave.

At one point, Penix completed 12 straight passes. He opened the second half with 11 consecutive completions, a stretch only ended by a dropped pass.

Penix is good enough that he alters the normal play-calling of college football coaches. For instance, Washington did not sit on its 13-point lead with 12 minutes left. The Huskies attempted nine consecutive passes (play-calling that, actually, nearly bit them in the end during a rousing Texas comeback).

Why not call a run or two or four?

“Michael Freaking Penix,” said Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb. “I can remember one series where we had to punt [after] I had went four straight runs. It was tough sledding in there. Their front was playing really well.

“To me, it was like … Mike is playing unbelievable. Don’t take the ball out of his hands. Even when it was questionable to do that, I thought Mike was going to make the play.”

In a postgame celebratory locker room, receiver Rome Odunze smiled about the late-game play-calling.

“We attack regardless of the moment,” he said. “We don’t change our identity.”

Penix finished with a volley of long bombs: two from 29 yards, a 77-yarder, one from 52 and two 19-yarders. His connection with his receivers on deep passes — especially in this building — gives you vibes of that 2019 LSU offense with Joe Burrow, who led the Tigers to a national title in the Superdome.

When the Huskies are humming, you’re toast. You can play great coverage and even get a finger on the ball — like Texas did on a tipped second-quarter touchdown pass — and you’ll still lose.

It’s Mike’s Magic.

But it’s those receivers too. And that offensive line, deemed to be the country’s best by winning the Joe Moore Award this year.

“Makes my job easy,” Penix said.

That’s true to Penix form, said Grubb.

“He really is a very, very humble person,” the coordinator said. “I think he’d rather be watching Netflix with his girlfriend, Olivia, than being in front of all these people, but he always has time for everyone. He’s got a really good soul.”

All these people: Most of them were in burnt orange.

Texas turned New Orleans this week into Austin, Louisiana. They filled the Dome, making up at least 70% of the fans here.

It was a veritable road game.

It mattered not.

Not with Penix at the controls. Not with Grubb and DeBoer’s brave decisions — those nine straight fourth-quarter passes, that fourth-and-1 conversion from your own 33 in the first half.

“I’m admiring in awe what these guys are doing,” said Washington AD Troy Dannen, who in just his third month on the job has not experienced a loss (9-0). “I’ve seen it every game: so much confidence and trust in the guys. He’s going to run the offense. Paid off on the fourth-and-1 in the first half. Nobody else would do that.

“It’s got him to 14-0 and a spot in Houston!”

No. 1 seed Michigan awaits in a battle between a current Big Ten program and a future Big Ten program.

Ah, yes, that off-the-field drama again!

But what happened on the field Monday is dramatic enough, especially from one individual.

Remember, kids, be like Mike (Penix).

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