Michael Penix Jr. pushed Washington to the CFP. He saved the best for when he got there.

NEW ORLEANS – The Sugar Bowl was just over 24 hours away, and Washington sixth-year quarterback Michael Penix Jr. called a players-only meeting as his time approached.

He walked to the front of the room with two surgically repaired knees along with running back Edefuan Ulofoshio and delivered a message. It was five hours until the new year. Bourbon Street was just a few steps away. Families flooded the city. Texas fans, much to Washington’s chagrin, were also all over the Huskies team hotel.

This was his time to lock himself in and concentrate. They needed to block out distractions, although the midnight fireworks downtown made it difficult to fall asleep early. He reminded them that they had been working all their lives for an opportunity like the one they had earned.

They had won their last nine games by 10 points or less and needed second-half comebacks to win three of them.

All of this had led them to this moment. He told them to be ready.

No one was more prepared than Penix himself, who hit Ja’Lynn Polk for 77 yards on his second pass attempt and finished with 430 yards and two touchdowns to spark Washington’s 37-31 victory over Texas in a playoff semifinal. of college football.

“We just followed it,” Ulofoshio said.

Part of Washington’s experienced roster has played for three coaches and endured a losing season. Penix has endured even more, starring for Indiana before injuries derailed his career and sent him to the transfer portal, where he reunited with Washington coach Kalen DeBoer, Indiana’s former offensive coordinator, before last season.

His first four seasons ended early with injuries. He tore his ACL when he was a freshman in 2018. A year later, he dislocated the AC joint in his non-throwing right shoulder. He tore his ACL again in 2020 after leading the Hoosiers into the top 10 of the polls. In 2021, he dislocated a shoulder joint and was sidelined again.

This generated doubts and problems with his mental health, which almost kept him away from football.

“It took me here. Going to Indiana helped me meet Coach DeBoer and the relationship we built over the years has been incredible,” Penix said. “And I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else.”


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Penix recalled those days after the best moment of his career, remembering that part of his story and at the same time recognizing the difficulty of his father not seeing his vision and not wanting him to begin his career in Indiana.

“He was at the bottom. He was on top. He was down again, and here he is up there, shining again in the most important moment,” said receiver Rome Odunze, who led the team with six receptions for 125 yards.

“He deserves this,” Ulofoshio said.

Time and again, Penix painted rainbows that scraped the roof of the Superdome, leading Washington to the brink of its first national title since 1991 and giving the program its first College Football Playoff victory. By the way, did the team beat him to share the national title in 1991? Michigan, which it will face again in Houston next week for the championship before joining the Wolverines in the Big Ten next season.

Penix, along with arguably the best receiving corps in the country in Odunze, Polk and Jalen McMillan, beat the Texas secondary and found the trio time and time again. He avoided Texas pressure to extend plays and finished the night without being sacked or turning the ball over. He ran three times for 31 yards on scoring runs, a rarity in DeBoer and coordinator Ryan Grubb’s offense, which saved some wrinkles for the biggest stage and best opponent of the season.

He fired spirals downfield that floated into his receivers’ arms and frustrated Texas’ defensive backs, who allowed 52 more passing yards to Penix than any quarterback they faced this season.

After jogging to the locker room at halftime with the score tied at 21, Penix completed his first 11 passes in the third quarter to help the Huskies take a 31-21 lead that allowed them to control the second half of the game.

“He’s like that 24/7, every day,” Polk said. “That’s nothing new to us.”

Michael Penix Jr. was named Sugar Bowl Offensive MVP. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Penix finished second in Heisman Trophy voting a month ago, but if voting had been held until after Monday’s semifinals, he would have hoisted that trophy, too.

“I think he didn’t win the Heisman because we were always treated like the underdogs,” Polk said. “You go to see a movie and you turn it on and it doesn’t lie at all. He can do everything. He can run, throw and make every pass. Whatever you need, he makes it happen on film. Him not understanding that, man, that hurt us as a team. But we knew who really won, and that was him.”

DeBoer called Penix the “best player in college football.”

As Penix waited for ESPN cameras to show him for his postgame interview, a staff member helped him put on a championship jersey over his pads, the sleeves nearly covering the cursive “M” tattoo on his left triceps. and the “P” to match. on his right triceps. A purple durag covered his head.

He closed his eyes, looked up at the sky, and gestured for a moment of gratitude.

“It was a difficult moment. I was going through difficult things throughout my career,” Penix said. “But I always say, ‘Man, I feel like everything I’ve been through prepared me for this moment.’ He made me the man, the person and the player that I am today.” So I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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A few feet away, tight end Jack Westover, who caught six passes for 59 yards, crouched and watched with glassy eyes, absorbing the moment. Running back Dillon Johnson, injured in the final minute of the game, pounded his chest and clenched his fist as a cart took him to the locker room.

The Huskies had a 40-to-1 chance to win the national title entering the season, only the 14th-best odds among contenders. Penix, 1 of 1, took them there.

As Prince’s “Purple Rain” blared through a suddenly empty fiery orange stadium, Penix walked onto the stage for the trophy presentation. He hugged DeBoer, who slapped his shoulder pads. His voices had become hoarse.

Penix climbed to the top of the stage as the rest of his teammates surrounding him looked on.

“We have one more left,” he said into ESPN microphones, as Washington fans in the stadium roared. “Let’s go to the natty, man. Come on.”

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(Top photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)