Why not Washington? Pac-12 champs ‘believe that we have what it takes’

LAS VEGAS — The ringleader for what might well be a team of destiny paused between the hash marks at Allegiant Stadium. 

He blew a kiss toward the ceiling of this Sin City cathedral as the last few seconds separating Washington from salvation evaporated into the chilly desert night. Then he pointed both index fingers to the heavens because the football gods are still smiling on quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and his clique of ultra-talented Huskies.

[And ode to the Pac-12: Often great, always fun, forever influential]

All around him, the celebrations roared to life. Wide receiver Germie Bernard, whose short touchdown reception had given Washington a 14-point lead midway through the second quarter, waved goodbye to Oregon coach Dan Lanning and his despondent flock of Ducks across the field. 

On the home sideline, where Kalen DeBoer was polishing off his ninth consecutive win against ranked opponents as the Huskies’ head coach, an avalanche of hugs and high-fives, fist bumps and flailing arms, was spreading from one member of these 9.5-point underdogs to another. Together they were about to become the first Pac-12 team to navigate a regular season undefeated since the conference expanded to 12 teams in 2011, and they were doing it on the last night of this historic conference as we know it.

Washington 34, Oregon 31. A berth in the College Football Playoff secured.

“We believe that we have what it takes,” DeBoer said. “If we just play in the present and control what we can control, that’s what happens is what you see out there today.”

What everyone saw on Friday night — from a sold-out crowd of 61,195 fans in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip to the millions who watched on television — was the reclamation and rejuvenation of an offense explosive enough to beat any team in the country, to advance to the College Football Playoff and potentially canonize this group of Huskies alongside the 1991 squad that finished undefeated to earn a share of the national title.

What everyone saw was Penix, who had limped into the rematch with Oregon after his two worst statistical outings of the season, pump the ball downfield while completing 27 of 39 passes for 319 yards and a touchdown to outduel Oregon’s Heisman Trophy candidate Bo Nix. They saw a receiving corps made whole by the re-emergence of wideout Jalen McMillan, who is finally healthy after missing two months with injury and caught nine passes for 131 yards, both of which were team-high totals. And they saw running back Dillon Johnson, whose 28 carries for 152 yards and two scores infused Washington with the ballast it often lacked while winning nine consecutive games by 10 points or fewer. 

“We are not going to say we want those games to be close,” Penix said, “but to be able to find a way to win each and every week, day in and day out, keeping that 1-0 mindset, it’s us versus us. Not worrying about the things on the outside that could possibly be a distraction for our team. I feel like that’s what makes this team so special.”

They’re so in sync that Penix was dumbfounded after what he described as a moment of telepathy between he and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb with Washington protecting a narrow lead in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter. Facing third-and-4 from the Oregon 49-yard line, the Huskies needed one first down, maybe two, to secure the program’s second trip to the College Football Playoff.

As Grubb and DeBoer sorted through the options during a timeout, Penix told one of Washington’s backup quarterbacks that he wanted to run a certain pass designed for McMillan, whose presence in the slot had tormented the Ducks all evening. When the call was radioed down to the field, an excited Penix realized his coach had shared the same thought.

“On the headsets, Coach Grubb called in that same exact play that I said without us even talking about it,” Penix said. “It was crazy to be able to have a quarterback and offensive coordinator be on the same page like that, our connection and bond, our trust we have with one another. I knew it was going to be special and we were going to make it happen.”

Sure enough, McMillan shimmied toward the right sideline and created enough separation for Penix to make a laser-like throw in front of Washington’s bench. The 6-yard completion against Oregon safety Evan Williams, who couldn’t cut down the angle quickly enough, all but salted the game away.

It marked the second time in the last two weeks that Grubb and DeBoer have entrusted Penix to make a critical decision in situations when other teams, and other offenses, would be more inclined to favor traditional runs. DeBoer kept his offense on the field facing fourth-and-1 from his own 29-yard line with 1:15 remaining in a tied game against Washington State, and Grubb selected a play in which Penix had two options based on his read of the defensive end: He could hand the ball to Johnson straight ahead or pull it from the running back’s belly and make an option pitch to wide receiver Rome Odunze on a jet sweep-style motion. Penix correctly chose the latter on a play that gained more than 20 yards. 

Rome Odunze converts huge fourth down vs. Washington State

Rome Odunze converts huge fourth down vs. Washington State

“It isn’t even [about] playing the percentages,” DeBoer said when asked about keeping the ball in Penix’s hands during pivotal moments. “You want your best players to win football games for you. It’s exactly that. I think you said it all. When you got [a guy like Penix] right here, give him the chance to touch the football, make plays. 

“He’s been through it all. He’s got all these experiences to draw upon. He knows when to take the risk, when not to, how to put the team on his back and just keep moving. He’s the guy we’re going to let pull the trigger when we feel like we got a call, put all our trust and belief in him. Other great players around him, of course, that are going to come through him, of course.”

The great players around him include a trio of future NFL receivers in McMillan, Odunze (eight catches, 102 yards) and Ja’Lynn Polk (five catches, 57 yards) that few teams, if any, can reasonably expect to cover. And when Johnson is barreling through defenders the way he did on Friday — bashing and blasting for 5.4 yards per carry against a team that surrendered just 3.3 yards per attempt all season — the balance is nearly impossible to stop.

Just ask the coach whom Washington’s ringleader soundly beat.

“You can’t take away one guy because they have other guys,” Lanning said. “I thought they did a good job in protection tonight. We tried to be aggressive at times with pressure. They probably made us pay for that.”

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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