By Ralph D. Russo
The remarkable comeback story of Michael Penix Jr. is a victory away from a perfect ending for Washington.
Penix passed for 430 yards and two touchdowns, and the Huskies held off Texas 37-31 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Monday night to advance to the College Football Playoff title game, earning both the sixth-year quarterback with two surgically repaired knees and the beleaguered Pac-12 a chance to go out a champion.
The second-ranked Huskies (14-0) will face No. 1 Michigan next Monday night in Houston with a 21-game winning streak, 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 season, with the Huskies headed to join Michigan in the Big Ten. The conference is not going away, but its days as a potential football power are likely done.
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.
"Huskie Nation stand up," Penix told the UW crowd in the postgame trophy ceremony. “We goin' to the natty!”
No. 3 Texas (12-2) had four shots at the end zone after getting to the Washington 12 with 15 seconds left, but Quinn Ewers missed on the last three passes. The final throw was a fade to Adonai Mitchell that was knocked away by Washington's Elijah Jackson.
“Those guys are the most resilient guys I have ever been around,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said.
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.
“They were a second away from playing for a national championship,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “They should be proud of themselves. Penix got hot and (Washington) made some big plays down the field.”
Penix spent his first four college seasons at Indiana, suffering three season-ending injuries, one to each knee and one to his throwing shoulder.
When his former offensive coordinator at Indiana, DeBoer, took over at Washington, Penix didn’t think twice before moving to Seattle, and then decided to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility and returned for a second year.
”He's been on a mission since he chose to come back, and a lot of the other guys followed his lead," DeBoer said
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.
“It was the tough times. I feel like everything I've been through built me for this,” Penix said.
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.
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, Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy II plunging into the end zone for a 1-yard TD run, a Penix-to-Polk TD pass when 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 intermission.
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 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 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 east, 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.
“Just was looking to give my guys an opportunity to go make a play,” Ewers said of his final throws. At the end of the day, that’s all you can really do.
Washington came through in the clutch — again.
“They've done it all year, coming up with big-time stops in big-time moments,” Penix said.
The Huskies' last 10 victories have all been decided by 10 points or fewer. The close games have brought doubters.
“We're always disrespected, always made the underdogs,” said defensive end Bralen Trice, another upperclassman who returned this season to make title run.
Texas: Came in with a vaunted defensive line led by All-America defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat and second-team All-American Murphy. They were tough to run against, as usual, but they didn’t get much pressure on Penix through an offensive line that was named the best in the country. Throughout the week both sides seemed a little tired of talking about the line matchup when the Huskies had the ball. Ultimately, the Huskies' big guys came out on top, not allowing a sack.
Washington: On the Huskies’ final offensive play as they tried to burn clock, star running back Dillon Johnson was shaken up, which stopped the clock and gave Texas an extra 30 seconds or so for their own drive. There was no word on Johnson’s status for the matchup with Michigan.
Texas: Will Ewers be back for the Longhorns or is it Arch Manning time in Austin? Stay tuned.
Washington: The Huskies are 5-8 all-time against Michigan, including 2-2 in Rose Bowls.
Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines stop Alabama 27-20 in OT
By Greg Beacham
Jalen Milroe caught a low snap on fourth down in overtime at the Rose Bowl and ran straight ahead into wall of blue and maize.
That wall of Michigan defenders had been hardened by the Wolverines' violent practice drills. Toughened by two previous College Football Playoff losses. Made impenetrable by months of turmoil that battered the program and its beloved head coach, Jim Harbaugh.
The Wolverines are going to Houston.
Blake Corum rushed for a 17-yard touchdown on the second snap of overtime, and top-seeded Michigan advanced to its first CFP championship game with a 27-20 victory over fourth-seeded Alabama in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday night.
Harbaugh’s Wolverines (14-0) will play for their school’s first national title since 1997 against Washington on Jan. 8 — but only after a fourth-quarter comeback and a hair-raising finish when the two winningest programs in college football history played just the second overtime game in the 110 editions of the Granddaddy of Them All.
“Glorious. That was glorious,” Harbaugh said. “It was a tremendous football game.”
Roman Wilson made a 4-yard TD catch with 1:34 left in regulation for the Wolverines, who hadn’t scored in the second half until that gritty 75-yard drive led by J.J. McCarthy.
Corum, who caught an early TD pass and rushed for 83 yards, needed only two snaps to score in the first overtime period, breaking tackles and spinning wildly into the end zone.
After Milroe was stopped 2 yards short of the end zone on the final snap, the Wolverines’ entire sideline sprinted onto the field, throwing a few helmets in the air while fireworks soared from behind the Rose Bowl scoreboard.
“Everything that we went through this entire year made us unbreakable, and in the biggest moments, we were going to show up,” said McCarthy, who passed for 221 yards and three touchdowns to win the Offensive Player of the Game award.
Jase McClellan rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns for Alabama (12-2), which fell heartbreakingly short of the chance to play for Nick Saban’s seventh national title at the school. The Tide led 20-13 on Will Reichard’s 52-yard field goal with 4:41 to play, but their defense couldn’t preserve it.
“We just didn’t finish the last four minutes of the game like we would like to, and we’re all very disappointed,” Saban said. “But one thing I told them in the locker room, this is one of the most amazing seasons in Alabama football history in terms of where this team came from and what they were able to accomplish.”
Milroe passed for 116 yards and rushed for 63 for the Tide, whose 11-game winning streak ended.
Michigan is the sixth straight No. 1 seed to win its semifinal game in the CFP’s 10 years of existence — but only after surviving just the third overtime Playoff game. After everything that has happened to Michigan in the past several months, Harbaugh believes his team is primed to keep fighting.
“If ever a game was going to be won up front, it was going to be won with toughness and physicality,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys were just there in rhythm and got it done. Epic game. Epic game. The stick-togetherness — I guess what people don’t know, how could they know, what the togetherness is like? There’s just nothing that can separate these guys.”
Michigan is one win away from reaching the primary goal set by Harbaugh when he returned to his alma mater in 2015 to restore its dominance. The former Wolverines quarterback won no Big Ten titles in his first six seasons, but Michigan has been elite since 2021, winning three straight conference titles and advancing to three Playoffs.
“We broke through after the COVID year, getting here,” linebacker Michael Barrett said. “We fell short a couple of times, man, but finally doing this, especially against Alabama, especially with a great coach like Nick Saban, great athletes they have, just having this tone-setting win, it’s definitely a turning point for the program.”
The Wolverines’ pristine record masked a profoundly messy season bookended by two three-game suspensions for Harbaugh — the first issued preemptively by the school amid an investigation of possible recruiting violations, and the second mandated by the Big Ten over allegations of sign-stealing and in-game scouting.
“It’s almost been an unfair advantage, all the things that the team has gone through,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t care anymore. Don’t care what people say. Don’t care about anything that comes up. We just know we’re going to overcome it.”
Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter acknowledged that the program's infamously difficult 9-on-7 tackling drills are “definitely” done for moments just like the end of this Rose Bowl.
“You put the faith in your players and trust their training, and when the game’s on the line, you let them go play fast and don’t overthink it,” Minter said. “The game comes down to the last play. We’re going after him, and that’s what we’re able to do. So proud of our guys for the win.”
Michigan was the dominant team for long stretches of the first three quarters of the Rose Bowl, yet Alabama hung in impressively with big plays and just enough defensive stops.
The Wolverines snapped their six-bowl losing streak and survived a handful of potentially disastrous mistakes that undercut their long stretches of superiority in this matchup. The biggest was a muffed punt by Jake Thaw, who was tackled at the Michigan 1 with 43 seconds left in regulation and barely avoided what would have been one of the most spectacular safeties in football history.
McClellan made an untouched 34-yard TD run in the first quarter, and Michigan answered with Corum’s 8-yard catch for his FBS-leading 25th TD — his first on a reception. Corum has been at Michigan for three straight appearances in the CFP, but he barely played two years ago when the Wolverines were routed by Georgia, and he was injured when they were upset by TCU last year.
The Wolverines went ahead shortly before halftime when Tyler Morris made a 38-yard TD catch, but McClellan put the Tide up 17-13 with a 3-yard TD run on the second snap of the fourth quarter. Down seven moments later, Michigan finally got moving with Corum and Wilson making big plays before Wilson's tying TD.
“It’s very frustrating, man," Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore said. "We always preach finishing, and we’re competitors at the end of the day, so when it come down to stuff like that it really eat at you.”
Alabama: The Tide will go three straight seasons without a national title for the first time in Saban’s tenure, but there’s no reason to be embarrassed about this well-played game against an elite opponent. The low snap on the final play will be crushing for center Seth McLaughlin, who didn't want to talk to reporters afterward.
Michigan: The Wolverines have broken through the penultimate barrier in Harbaugh’s tenure with a victory that emphasized the upside of everything their coach teaches.
Alabama: The Tide will return with another touted recruiting class. Saban’s program remains a gold-standard powerhouse, and it’ll likely stay that way for as long as he wants to keep coaching.
Michigan: The College Football Playoff championship game in Houston on Jan. 8.