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Tampa’s Michael Penix Jr. leads Washington to CFP title game

Washington withstands a late rally by Texas and will meet Michigan for the championship.
 
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) runs against Texas defensive back Kitan Crawford (21) during the second half of the Sugar Bowl on Monday night in New Orleans.
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) runs against Texas defensive back Kitan Crawford (21) during the second half of the Sugar Bowl on Monday night in New Orleans. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]
Published Jan. 2|Updated Jan. 2

NEW ORLEANS — Michael Penix Jr. passed for 430 yards and two touchdowns, and Washington held off Texas 37-31 in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night to advance to the College Football Playoff championship game, earning both the sixth-year quarterback with two surgically repaired knees and the beleaguered Pac-12 one more game this season.

The second-ranked Huskies (14-0) will face No. 1 Michigan next Monday night in Houston, looking for their first national championship since 1991 and the Pac-12′s first since Southern California in 2004. Washington is one of 10 schools fleeing the Pac-12 for other Power Five conferences next year, with the Huskies headed to join Michigan in the Big Ten.

But first, the final season of the four-team playoff before expansion to 12 in 2024 comes down to a Pac-12-Big Ten matchup, just like the first when Ohio State beat Oregon.

No. 3 Texas (12-2) had four shots at the end zone after getting to the UW 12 with 15 seconds left, but Quinn Ewers missed on the last three. The final throw was a fade to a well-covered Adonai Mitchell that sailed long.

In Texas’ first CFP appearance and final football game as a member of the Big 12 before it goes to the Southeastern Conference, Ewers passed for 318 yards and a touchdown. But it wasn’t enough against Penix and his array of talented receivers.

Penix, a Tampa Bay Tech alumnus, spent his first four college seasons at Indiana, suffering three season-ending injuries. When his former offensive coordinator at Indiana, Kalen DeBoer, took over at Washington, Penix didn’t think twice before moving to Seattle.

The left-hander stayed healthy and blossomed into a star, the Heisman Trophy runner-up this year, and now has a chance to win a national championship after another brilliant performance.

Penix went 29 for 38 with no turnovers. He completed 12 straight at one point, the longest on-target streak in the CFP’s 10-year history.

And he did it attacking down field as usual. He completed six passes of at least 20 yards, connecting with Rome Odunze six times for 125 yards and Ja’Lynn Polk five times for 122.

Washington players celebrate victory after their CFP semifinal victory over Texas.
Washington players celebrate victory after their CFP semifinal victory over Texas. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

It was in some ways a perfect CFP semifinal for the last season before massive changes in college football: two teams switching conferences next season, led by star quarterbacks who transferred in.

A wild first half included a 77-yard connection with Polk on Penix’s second pass of the game, defensive tackle Byron Murphy II plunging into the end zone for a 1-yard TD run for Texas, a Penix-to-Polk TD pass where the receiver tipped the ball to himself and the Longhorns capping the second quarter with a long touchdown drive to tie it at 21-all at the intermission.

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There was a fourth-and-1 stop by Texas of Washington deep in Longhorns territory, which didn’t deter DeBoer from going for a fourth-and-1 at his own UW 33, and converting.

Penix had 255 yards and five completions of over 20 yards in the first half alone, and then kept it rolling on the first drive of the second half, throwing a dart down the middle to Jalen McMillen for a 19-yard score.

Washington added two field goals by Grady Gross to take a 34-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. Holding the Huskies to field goals kept Texas in the game, and when Ewers found Adonai Mitchell, the Georgia transfer with two national titles, for a 1-yard score with 7:23 left, it was a one-possession game.

The Superdome sounded like Darrell K. Royal Stadium west, with Texas fans easily outnumbering the visitors from the Pacific Northwest.

Penix calmly went back to work, hitting Odunze over the shoulder for 32 yards down the sideline to set up a first-and-goal that led to the third field goal of the day for Gross, a former walk-on who was put on scholarship after hitting a walk-off winner in the Apple Cup.

That put Washington up 37-28 with 2:40 left, and had its purple clad fans doing its best to drown out the Longhorns with a “Let’s go Huskies!” chant.

Texas kicked a field goal with 1:09 left cut the lead to six. Washington recovered an onside kick, but couldn’t kill the clock. Texas flew down the field and had an improbable comeback in sight.

But as Washington has done all season, it came through in the clutch. The Huskies’ last nine victories have all been decided by 10 points of fewer.

By RALPH D. RUSSO, Associated Press