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Sugar Bowl Staff Roundtable: How does Texas stop Michael Penix Jr.?

Predictions and more answered in the CFP Semi-final Roundtable

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Oregon at Washington Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In two years, Steve Sarkisian has taken the Longhorns from a 5-win season to the College Football Playoff. Now as they attempt to win their 5th National Championship, is Monday’s CFP semi-final more about Sark vs DeBoer than anything else?

Daniel Seahorn (@DanielSeahorn) - I think it’s going to be more about the battles between the respective DCs against Sark and DeBoer. This is a matchup that is going to have a lot of offensive firepower, and whichever defensive unit can play the more disciplined game is likely going to determine the outcome.

Gerald Goodridge (@ghgoodridge) - Frankly, I think the matchup I am more concerned about is Pete Kwiatkowski vs. DeBoer and Grubb. I have very little worry that Sark will have something perfect cooked up for the matchup because that is what he does. But the story of the game for Washington has been that offense helmed by a Heisman-candidate quarterback. Can Pete Kwiatkowski and his crew dial up pressure to force Penix off of his game and help out the secondary or will Penix have time to pick apart a Texas secondary that has struggled in spots this year? Washington has made a lot of money this year on explosive plays and Texas has done a relatively good job of limiting them, so that’s the head-to-head I am dialed in on.

Cameron Parker (@camerondparker) - I’m more concerned about the defense stopping Penix and the Huskies' offense. Washington’s pass defense has struggled this season and if any play-caller can exploit that, it’ll be Sark. But how do Ryan Grubb and DeBoer fair against the Texas defensive front?

Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) - Both coaches have executed quick turnarounds and are known for their offensive attacks, so I think that’s a fair way to frame teams led by quarterbacks they brought in to lead those programs, but the key difference is how long Texas has been out of the national spotlight, including never even competing for a spot in the College Football Playoffs. At least Chris Petersen accomplished that feat at Washington. Something that seems notable, though? How uninteresting the storyline about Sarkisian coaching against the program that gave him his first head job. Even when the Longhorns and Huskies played last year in the Alamo Bowl, I don’t think anyone even asked Sark about that in San Antonio. Kind of strange.

How can the Texas secondary slow down Michael Penix?

Daniel - It’s hard to talk about the secondary without discussing the defensive front as well. Just like last year, it’s going to be important for the Texas defense to get Penix off his spot and disrupt his timing between him and his receivers. The question will be how Texas does that with pressure without leaving the secondary exposed for too long. Last year in the Alamo Bowl we saw Washington move the pocket without sprintouts and rollouts to help slow down the Texas rush. I’d imagine we are going to see that again so, that interior pressure from T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy is less of a factor.

Gerald - I mean, reread my previous post. It is less about what the secondary can do and more about what the front seven can do to help them. Creating interior pressure with two of the best players on the field will be paramount for Texas to keep Penix from getting comfortable and knocking the passing game out of rhythm. Asking the secondary to slow down that high-powered offense on its own is a fool’s errand. It’s going to take all 11 to keep things going.

Cameron - Emphasize the word slow because Penix is going to get him but the key is limiting the explosive plays. Texas was able to do that in last year's Alamo Bowl matchup but Washington has improved on offense since then. Texas has improved on the defensive line but questions still linger about the secondary. If the DL can create constant pressure on Penix and limit plays of 20+ yards, I like the Longhorns' chances.

Wescott - The obvious answer here is to say, get pressure on Penix, but that’s easier said than done because every defense that has gone against Washington this year has wanted to do that. Considering that the Huskies have only given up 11 this year, fifth nationally, no one has accomplished that feat. The matchup I’m watching is 275-pound redshirt freshman center Parker Brailsford against 362-pound defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat. Brailsford is known for possessing rare strength for an offensive lineman of his size, but it’s hard to see how he’s able to slow down T’Vondre Sweat. A quarterback like Penix can deal with edge pressure if he can step up in the pocket – if Texas can collapse it into his face, then maybe the Longhorns create a sack or two or force Penix to make some errant throws.

What’s the biggest key for Texas to beat Washington?

Daniel - Take care of the football and find a way to make Penix make a mistake. Create more possessions for the offense and find ways to limit the possessions of Washington’s potent attack by getting off the field when the opportunity presents itself and on offense convert money downs to keep drives alive. Most importantly, the red zone offense will have to be efficient. Field goals are not going to win this game in NOLA. Touchdowns will.

Gerald - At the risk of sounding like the old man yelling at clouds, Texas is able to run the ball and control the pace of the game. What’s the best way to slow down the Washington offense? Keep Penix off of the field. Capitalize on that mismatch (Washington is giving up 3.6 line yards per rush) and limit the number of opportunities that offense has to try and pick apart your secondary. If CJ Baxter, Jaydon Blue, and the rest of that talented RB room can have a day, I feel good about Texas’s chances.

Cameron - Looking at last year's result, Washington was able to control the clock and covert 3rd downs. I think the biggest key will be the Texas defense not allowing the Huskies to sustain long drives and therefore keeping their offense on the sideline as much as possible.

Wescott - The running back situation for the Longhorns last season made them one-dimensional, especially when they fell behind. I think controlling the flow of the game to stay out of obvious passing situations and allow Sark to get into his bag of screen passes will be huge. If Washington can slow down the running game again and limit what Texass can produce on the perimeter with easy throws, the Longhorns are going to be in trouble in this game. Frankly, though, I don’t see that happening – Sark’s bag on those plays is too deep and this team has executed those plays at a high level for virtually the entire season.

Is there anything the Longhorns can learn from their loss to Washington in last year's Alamo Bowl?

Daniel - The defense should definitely have a feel for how the Washington offense operates and know exactly what they are up against with that skill position group that features Rome Odunze. You have some pre-existing data to go off of this time around that you were able to gather from going against a lot of the players that have returned this time around for Washington.

Gerald - A lot of the success Texas had offensively was pushing the ball downfield against a secondary that was outmatched. While I said in the previous question that the key for Texas was to try and slow the game down, trotting that group of pass catchers out there against a defense that is susceptible to explosive passing plays and not trying at least once or twice to push the ball down the field would be a bad choice.

Cameron - See my answer to the last question but also I think Texas can learn how important it will be to run the ball. Texas ran for just 51 yards and averaged under 3 yards per rush. That won’t work in this year's Sugar Bowl.

Wescott - Trying to battle a good team at full strength while dealing with opt-outs is less than ideal? On a serious analytical level, it’s clear that beating Washington is extremely difficult without inflicting some negative plays or producing turnovers, so Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense needs to create some game-changing moments. Gerald is spot on, too, as evidenced by Xavier Worthy running free on multiple occasions. His hands are right this year and Sark has AD Mitchell to stretch the field, too – the Longhorns are going to be able to produce chunk plays in the passing game.

Who wins: Texas or Washington?

Daniel - If I was betting this game I wouldn’t be betting on anyone straight up. I’d be all over the over because you can guarantee these two teams are going to light up the scoreboard.

I thought the extended time to mull this one over would help put my mind at ease when it came to decision time and I couldn’t be more wrong. I have only picked against Texas once all year and I was proven wrong. I’m not super confident in my pick, but I’m going to ride the horse that brought me here. Texas wins a tight one in a shootout, 38-35.

Gerald - I’m 12-1 this year picking Texas and I’m not going to do anything differently this game. I’ve got the Horns 38-35.

Cameron - I’m torn. On the one hand, Washington hasn’t played a defensive front like Texas and hasn’t seen offensive weapons like Worthy, Mitchell, Sanders, etc. But Texas hasn’t played a QB like Penix since…well, Penix. Washington has also shown the ability to win close games and I think that gives them an overall edge on Monday. For what it’s worth, when I pick against Texas they’re 2-0 but I’m going with Washington 41, Texas 36.

Wescott - Sark has been banging his hammer about the versatility of this team. I think they’re better defensively and better on special teams and that will be enough to win a shootout, 41-34.