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2024 Sugar Bowl preview: QB Michael Penix is the engine that makes Washington go

The Heisman Trophy finalist is one of the nation’s most dynamic passers.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Texas at Washington Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest roadblock for the national title aspirations of the No. 3 Texas Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl against the No. 2 Washington Huskies is obviously Washington’s sixth-year senior quarterback, Maxwell Award winner, and Heisman finalist Michael Penix Jr. Standing at 6’3 213 pounds, Penix has established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in college football and has been the driving force behind all of the Huskies success this season.

The Tampa native comes from a family of athletes. His father, and namesake, Michael Penix Sr., was a record-setting running back at Tennessee Tech in the 90s, his mother Takisha ran track and field for the Golden Eagles, and his younger brother Mekhi is currently on Tennessee Tech’s football roster.

Penix committed to Indiana in 2018, where he began a collegiate football career riddled with adversity — over the four years that Penix spent in Bloomington, two of them were cut short due to season-ending injuries. After 2 torn ACLs and SC and AC joint injuries with the Hoosiers, Penix began to develop an “injury prone” distinction, which led him to transfer to the Huskies in 2022. Injuries, and his new head coach seemed to be the two driving factors that inspired his departure from the Hoosiers.

“One of the biggest things was Coach Kalen DeBoer,” Penix said. “I felt like every time I was back there taking a snap in his offense, I always felt like I had an opportunity to do something great with the play and it was definitely going to be electric.”

Needless to say, Penix made the right decision heading west to Seattle. With only 29 rushing attempts in 2023, nine of which were designed runs, Penix stays in the pocket behind his incredible offensive line where it’s safe and leaves the running duties up to his 1,000-yard rusher Dillon Johnson.

“For me the things that changed my mindset, obviously my injuries and stuff that I’ve been through,” Penix said at Pac-12 Media Days. “That just makes me think like every play I make I know that it could be my last play of the season, because I’ve been through it. I just play every play to the fullest and I just go out there and have fun.”

With an impressive stable of talented wide receivers and a powerful offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best, Penix has been able to rack up the most passing yards in college football with 4,218 and the third-most passing touchdowns with 33. This Huskies front line has been able to keep him safe all year, allowing the fifth fewest sacks in the nation with 11.

Penix has incredible accuracy, completing 74.7 percent of his throws on adjusted completion percentage. PFF gave him the eight-highest offensive ranking in the nation with 90.8 and the sixth-highest passer ranking in the nation with 90.2. Two receivers on the Huskies have been able to achieve 1,000-yard receiving seasons with Penix under center, all without their standout slot receiver Jalen McMillan for almost half the season.

This will be the second time Sarkisian and the Longhorns have faced off against Penix in the post season. Back-to-back years now, in Sarkisian’s two postseason appearances at Texas, he has matched up against the program where he began his head coaching career. Last year, Penix went 32-of-54 passing for 287 passing yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in Washington’s 27–20 victory over Texas in the 2022 Alamo Bowl.

This year, the Longhorns have grown in overall depth and talent around the roster to fuel the improvement from four losses in the regular season to a Big 12 championship and the program’s first appearance in the playoffs. The Huskies continued the trajectory started last season under DeBoer with Penix continuing to set the tone for Washington.

This change of scenery has managed to above all keep Penix healthy, not missing a single game in his two years with the Huskies, and also helped him achieve tremendous individual and team success as he finished his sixth year as a Heisman finalist and winner of the Maxwell Award for the most outstanding player in college football.

Despite all of the adversity, battling through injuries and changing schools, Penix has risen to new heights, leading his new home to an undefeated season, a Pac-12 Championship, and a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

For Texas to advance to the finals, defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and his staff will have to find ways to slow down Penix, one of the most difficult challenges in college football.