For the second straight year, the Texas Longhorns have a postseason matchup against the Washington Huskies, the team that gave Steve Sarkisian his first head coaching job in 2009, this time in the College Football Playoff semifinals in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 1.
Sarkisian inherited a program that went winless in the previous season, immediately elevating the Huskies to 5-7 and then 7-6, where Washington remained for two seasons before an 8-4 campaign in 2012 was enough for Sarkisian to land the chance to replace his mentor Pete Carroll at USC.
After arriving in Seattle in late 2021 after serving as the head coach at Fresno State for two seasons, Kalen DeBoer not only steadied the U-Dub program after the Jimmy Lake era ended in scandal, he elevated it back to the standard set by Chris Petersen, finishing 11-2 last season with the 27-20 win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl and then going undefeated this season.
The Huskies weren’t picked to win the Pac-12 season — the Trojans held that preseason honor before flaming out — but DeBeor continued to prove that Washington is a program on the rise, securing a marquee 36-33 win early in the season over No. 8 Oregon in Seattle and then beating three straight ranked opponents during a tough November slate — No. 20 USC in Los Angeles, No. 18 Utah at home, and No. 11 Oregon State in Corvallis to earn a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game against No. 5 Oregon, a thrilling 34-31 win on Friday in Las Vegas.
The undefeated record and quality wins bolstered Washington’s resume to the extent that the Huskies were an easy pick as the No. 2 seed behind Michigan during Sunday’s selection show for the College Football Playoffs.
For the second year, Washington is led by sixth-year senior quarterback Michael Penix, who had two battle through two ACL tears in the same knee and two shoulder injuries to finally fulfill his potential under DeBoer, his offensive coordinator at Indiana in 2019 when Penix dislocated his throwing shoulder, ending his season and derailing a 7-2 start by the Hoosiers.
In throwing for 4,218 yards with 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions, the left-hander likely earned a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist with his performance through the first 13 games leading the high-powered Washington offense.
Penix doesn’t rely on arm talent alone, however — his wide receiver corps is impressive, led by junior Rome Odunze, currently third nationally with 1,418 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on 17.6 yards per reception. Texas Tech transfer Ja’Lynn Polk is also a 1,000-yard receiver this year, on that mark exactly, with eight touchdowns on 16.7 yards per reception. For most of the season, Penix hasn’t had junior Jalen McMillan available for most of the year due to a knee injury, he notched nine catches for 131 yards against Oregon and now has four weeks to regain full health.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Huskies offenses leans on the pass more than the run, gaining 188 first downs through the air compared to 88 first downs on the ground. In turn, the ground game leans heavily on junior Dillon Johnson, who accounts for 55.8 percent of the team’s carries (201), 68.4 percent of the rushing yards (1,113), and 53.8 percent of the rushing touchdowns (14).
Washington has two senior tight ends who have combined for six receiving touchdowns and serve as auxiliary blockers to complement an offensive line that returned three starters this year that has allowed only 11 sacks, tied for fifth nationally.
After converting third downs at a rate of 56.7 percent last season to lead the country, the Huskies haven’t been quite as efficient this year at 48.3 percent, 11th nationally. In the red zone, Washington score touchdowns on 70.3 percent of their trips, 19th overall.
The defense ranks No. 50 in the country in scoring defense at 23.8 points per game while allowing opponents to convert third downs at a rate of 40.3 percent, No. 83 nationally, and have even more struggles in the red zone, allowing a touchdown rate of 70.3 percent, which ranks 118th.
Against the run, a solid defensive front has allowed 4.3 yards per carry, although star edge Bralen Trice hasn’t been as productive this year, seeing his sacks drop from nine to five and his tackles for loss from 12.5 to 8.5. Hybrid safety/linebacker Dominique Hampton, who plays the team’s Husky position, is the team’s leading tackler with 93 on the season with five passes broken up, and two interceptions. Three linebacker comprise the rest of the team’s top four tacklers.
The pass defense was a weakness for the Huskies last season and it’s only gotten worse this year, dropping from 100th in passing yards allowed per game to 122nd, but they have come up with 16 interceptions, tied with the Longhorns for fifth nationally, with 10 players recording at least one interception. Strangely enough, Washington also ranks tied for 25th in yards per attempt at 6.6 and allows completions on less than 60 percent of opposing pass attempts.
Texas has a 64-percent win probability, according to ESPN’s SP+, with a projected margin of 33-27.