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No. 20 Texas vs. No. 12 Washington: First look at the Huskies

The Huskies boast a high-powered offense led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and a defense that struggles in pass coverage.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Call it the Sark Bowl.

After turning around the Washington Huskies a decade ago, Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian will lead the No. 20 Longhorns against the No. 12 Huskies in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

The sixth bowl game for Sarkisian and the 58th all-time bowl appearance for Texas comes as Sarkisian tries to match his career high in wins at nine, achieved in 2014 when he was the head coach at USC. It’s the fifth meeting between the two schools and the first since 2001, when the Longhorns won a 47-43 shootout in the Holiday Bowl. Texas holds a 3-1 all-toime record against Washington.

In head coach Kalen DeBoer’s first season, Washington is 10-2 with six straight victories.

“Well, it’s a heck of a challenge, like I say, Coach DeBoer’s done a fantastic job,” Sarkisian said in a virtual news conference on Sunday. “These guys can light up the scoreboard quickly. (Washington quarterback) Michael Penix, I’ve had a chance to watch them a few different times, and he throws it all over the place; they have great receivers and a really good offensive line. They run the ball effectively, but it’s a very dynamic passing game, and they have a very disruptive front defensively, they get after the quarterback, really well coached. I know this about the University of Washington — there’s a lot of pride in that program. It has great history and tradition, great fan base, so it’s going be a heck of a challenge for us.”

Penix, a redshirt junior who transferred from Indiana during the 2022 offseason, has already committed to playing in the bowl game for Washington as he considers his professional future, perhaps in part because injuries prevented him from participating in any bowl games with the Hoosiers.

Helming the nation’s No. 5 offense in FEI, Penix leads the country in passing yards with 4,354 with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions while boasting a 66-percent completion percentage and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. Penix also bolsters the Washington rush attack with four rushing touchdowns, although he’s not a frequent runner, just a mobile quarterback who can extend plays to hurt defenses through the air.

The Huskies offensive line also protects him well, allowing only seven sacks on the season, tied for second nationally. In passing downs sack rate, Washington leads the country, while ranking No. 25 in power success rate and No. 30 in stuff rate. With 21 tackles for loss allowed, the Huskies lead the nation in that category.

Washington has 32 rushing touchdowns on the season as the running game benefits from the ability of Penix to stretch the field vertically with explosive plays in the passing game — the two primary running backs average 6.2 yards per carry and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively.

And the Huskies are extremely hard to get off the field on third down, converting at a rate of 57.1 percent, No. 1 in the nation. Down the stretch, Washington was absolutely lethal on the money down, converting 64.7 percent of its third downs in November. Penix completes 71.9 percent of his passes on third down for a passer rating of 176.95 with nine touchdown passes.

Two sophomore wide receivers, Rome Odunze Jalen McMillan, both have 70 or more catches for more than 1,000 yards and a combined 15 receiving touchdowns. Texas Tech transfer Ja’Lynn Polk is also a threat, averaging 17.1 yards per catch with six touchdowns.

If Texas can limit Washington from producing touchdowns on explosive passing plays — an issue in recent weeks thanks to busted coverages — the Huskies aren’t especially elite scoring touchdowns in the red zone with a 66.2-percent touchdown rate that ranks No. 44 nationally.

Defensively, Washington ranks No. 89 in FEI thanks to struggles in a number of categories — the Huskies rank in the 100s in drive efficiency, touchdown rate, value drive rate, first-down rate, and turnover rate.

In fact, Washington only does one thing reasonably well defensively and that’s inflict negative plays, although the Huskies only rank in the middle of the pack nationally in tackles for loss. Still, Washington will challenge the Texas offensive line with run blitzes and stunts while often allowing the defensive ends to get upfield aggressively — the starters combine for more than half of the team’s 35 sacks.

The run defense has dominated weak opponents and struggled against more formidable attacks like UCLA and Oregon. The pass defense is a similar story with poor performances against Stanford, UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon, allowing 7.8 yards per attempt on the season and 25 passing touchdowns. Big pays were a particular problem with opponents producing 22 passing plays or 30-plus yards while generating only seven interceptions.

When Texas isn’t able to produce long scoring plays, Washington allows touchdowns in the red zone on 60.5 percent of opposing drives, No. 68 nationally.

Look for a high-scoring game, but the Longhorns are better balanced on both sides of the ball as long as potential opt outs don’t significantly diminish the impact of the Texas rushing attack.