However, this Washington team is an improved version of the team that came out of the Alamo City with a win to close the 2022 season. Still led by the same key offensive talent, the Huskies added important pieces on both sides of the ball to make the jump to an undefeated season and a berth in the College Football Playoffs.
To help us unpack the differences, we reached out to Mark Schaefer of UW Dawg Pound to give us key insights.
Burnt Orange Nation: This Washington team is largely unchanged from the team Texas squared off against in the Alamo Bowl a year ago. What, if any, are the major differences from 2022 to 2023?
UW Dawg Pound: The major difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is actually one player: running back Dillon Johnson. The transfer from Mississippi State has added a different dimension to Washington’s run game. His powerful running style is super fun to watch. A throwback to an earlier era (think a Frank Gore, Stephen Jackson type), Johnson looks for contact, and he’ll run through you if you’re not careful. His agility and downhill running style in the open field are also fun to watch and have enabled him to rack up over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns on the campaign. Aside from Johnson, the complementary offensive players that don’t get the headlines (Germie Bernard, tackle Troy Fautanu, and tight ends Devin Culp and Jack Westover) have made a huge difference for the Huskies this year. Defensively, I would point to an increase in aggression in the secondary that has allowed them to get 16 interceptions, including two pick sixes. Overall, this is definitely a team that has taken the next step, and they definitely have what it takes to win a championship.
BON: Michael Penix Jr. and that high-powered receiving corps is one of, if not the, most potent passing attacks in the country. If you were scheming up a way to slow them down, what would you do?
UWDP: I’m no defensive coordinator and as such I probably don’t have a great answer for you, but I would try to take Odunze, McMillan, and Polk out of the game by playing my DBs high and running press man coverage. Even then, if you do that, you’re giving Michael Penix the matchup that he wants. “If it’s my guy, against their guy, I’ll take my guy every time,” Penix said after beating Oregon with a Rome Odunze deep-ball touchdown. Plus, the receivers are so athletic and so well-coached that it might not matter. UW’s receivers are the type of group DCs and DB coaches have nightmares over.
BON: What is the one area or matchup you’re the most concerned with heading into the Sugar Bowl?
UWDP: An area of concern for me is the defensive backs against Texas’ pair of dynamic receivers. This is probably the stiffest receiver competition they’ve faced outside of Oregon. The difference between Texas and Oregon, however, is that with Oregon, they run a kind of extended triple option and don’t really try to beat you with deep shots. Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers, on the other hand, is averaging nine yards per attempt. That’s the kind of number that raises an eyebrow for me.
BON: What is the one storyline you’re watching leading up to the game?
UWDP: All throughout the pregame buildup, national pundits such as Booger McFarland have said, in effect, “Washington can’t play ‘big boy’ football.” This line has basically set the pregame narrative, characterizing the game as a “styles make fights” type of affair. I tend to disagree with that, as Johnson’s stats would indicate. He didn’t get to the thousand-yard mark off of finesse, I can tell you that. Yes, this offense is pass first, and Michael Penix is an incredible quarterback, but the running game has really taken a step forward due to the likes of Johnson at running back, and due to the outstanding blocking of Troy Fautanu, a true hawg-molly in every sense! People have underestimated the Dawgs all year, and they use it as fuel, saying “just watch” to their doubters. We’ll see which line imposes their will, and who comes out on top!
BON: What’s your score prediction?
UWDP: I predict this to be a heavyweight fight, a showdown in every sense of the word. Each team will trade scores until one finds within them a stop or a backbreaker on offense. Up to this point, it has been Washington who has found those this season, and I would bet it’ll be the Huskies once again.
Washington 42, Texas 38