• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Despite bitter disappointment, Huskies set tone for bright new future

Byusanewscart.com

Jan 9, 2024 #Sports

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HOUSTON — Washington‘s national title hopes were already gone when Michael Penix Jr.’s final pass fell harmlessly to the turf at NRG Stadium on Monday night. As he held his midsection and limped to the sideline for the last time, it would have been fair to question whether he should have still been out there with the Huskies trailing by 21 points.

A play earlier, Penix absorbed a big shot and was slow to get up, but the idea he would not see out his final collegiate game never entered his mind.

“[I’m] better than I was three years ago,” Penix said. “I’m just happy that I was able to finish it with the guys. I knew that I didn’t want them to take me out of that game because I’ve been through it too much.”

There on the sideline to greet him was Washington coach Kalen DeBoer, the man who coached him for a season at Indiana in 2019, and brought him to Seattle two years ago after four straight seasons ended due to injury. They shared a quick embrace before Penix continued to the medical tent, where he remained as Michigan‘s J.J. McCarthy took a pair of knees to see out Michigan’s 34-13 win.

Outside the tent, several of Penix’s teammates gathered, waiting for their leader to emerge. When he did, shortly after the game ended, gold confetti was falling from the rafters. Fighting to hold back his emotions, Penix shared embraces with teammates before willing himself to the locker room. DeBoer has spoken at length this season about what a strong bond he shares with Penix and in their brief sideline interaction, DeBoer said, he relayed that to him once again.

“Just asked him if he’s all right, because he was obviously hit quite a few times,” DeBoer said. “Making sure he was OK. And it was a brief time we spent together there [on the sideline]. Just wanted to make sure he knew how I felt about him.

“This guy came here, and the trust he put in me to put people around him, whether it be offensive staff, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, other players, and he picked up and moved all the way across the country. I just can’t tell you how much that means to me to have that trust from someone like Michael because this was his last crack at it.”

Penix dismissed the notion there was anything seriously wrong with him.

“I’m not healthy, but I’ll be there. I’m good,” he said. “… I talked with the doctors and stuff like that. It’s nothing major. If I had to play tomorrow, I’d play.”

In two seasons together in Seattle, DeBoer and Penix combined to go 25-3. It was the type of run that likely exceeded either of their honest expectations when Penix arrived in January of 2023, but at the same time, it ended in genuine disappointment.

To come this close to a national title and to come up short isn’t the type of defeat that can be easily absorbed.

“When you see players care so much about what’s happening on the football field, when you see them love each other, when you see them have expectations and when you fall short like we did tonight, you just — I’m sorry,” DeBoer said. “I’m sorry that they couldn’t realize a championship this year.”

A national title had been the goal for well over a year. When Penix decided to return to school in early December last year, the pursuit was a large part of the calculation. Star receiver Rome Odunze has stated repeatedly since he committed that he felt the Huskies could win the school’s first title since 1991.

It’s something the coaching staff had embraced, too.

Just before training camp began, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, who has coached with DeBoer since their days at NAIA Sioux Falls a decade-and-a-half ago, had lunch with former UW coach Chris Petersen, who has become a mentor over the past two seasons. Grubb shared with Petersen the message he planned to share with his team to begin camp: 161 Days to Houston.

Grubb’s thinking was that a Pac-12 title was probable, why not shoot for what was possible?

Petersen was conflicted. He relayed concern about setting a goal that could be taken off the board with a single loss. Why not focus on the conference?

“He was like, ‘I don’t know, you lose one and then you can still win the Pac,'” Grubb said. “But I was definitive. I said, ‘I’m doing it.’ And he was like, ‘Hey, you might be right.'”

In the first offensive meeting during camp, Grubb shared a slide that started the countdown to Houston. And each week throughout the season the number got lower, culminating with a final meeting in Seattle after beating Texas in the Sugar Bowl: 6 Days Until Houston.

“I remember him saying he was wrestling whether or not to show [the countdown slide],” UW tight end Jack Westover said. “He told us how heavy it was on his heart to let us know that he believed in us and the vision that he had for this team.”

Said Grubb: “When you raise the bar up here, they’ll climb higher. They just will. That’s exactly what they did.”

The Huskies’ trip to Houston didn’t finish how they wanted, but their accomplishments still stack up well historically from both a program and conference perspective. Washington is the only team in the Pac-12 era (2011-2023) to go undefeated during the regular season and second team to reach the College Football Playoff National Championship game (Oregon, 2014).

“I think that you can look at it just in terms of where you got to and, obviously, we want to win the national championship, not just be at the national championship,” Grubb said. “At the same time, I think that you just look at what we were able to accomplish and that we played a lot of good teams besides Michigan and played well. So, I think that there’s something that the guys can recognize.”

For Odunze, the game was more than just an opportunity to secure the team’s place in program history. He understood there was an unusual legacy piece in play, with the Huskies representing the Pac-12 for the last time following the conference’s collapse five months ago.

“I think it’s sad for me, it’s sad in a way just because the Pac-12 — that West Coast football, West Coast teams going against West Coast teams in that way will not be as prevalent,” Odunze said. “But every team is still out there. Every team is still going to be playing football games. So those fan bases will still get to enjoy those different aspects and enjoy their teams on the west Coast.

“But it’s sad and that was part of the reason that we went out there today, one of our motivations to bring it home for the [Pac-12] and for the West Coast.”

With Oregon State and Washington State the only two remaining teams in the Pac-12, the Conference of Champions’ two-decade national title drought in football will likely extend into perpetuity.

Washington, which won its first conference football title in 1916 as part of the Pacific Coast Conference, is off to the Big Ten next season. The Huskies won’t have to wait long for another crack at Michigan, with the Wolverines heading to Seattle for their third game of conference play on Oct. 5.

With Penix off to the NFL, there will be a changing of the guard, but under DeBoer, there is a sense the Huskies are just getting started.

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