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Washington Advances to National Title, A Sugar Bowl Classic

It was a shootout at the Sugar Bowl in Washington’s 37-31 victory over Texas. The victory inside the Superdome gives Washington its 14th win on the season and advances the Huskies to the National Championship game. Michael Penix Jr. opened this Playoff Semifinal with fireworks quickly. A 77-yard pass to Ja’Lynn Polk on the third play of Washington’s first possession set up an easy touchdown. Quinn Ewers and the Longhorns responded with a seven-play, 75-yard drive for a quick answer. The game was tied at seven mid-way through the first quarter, and it was off to the races and set up a finish for the ages.

Texas’ Fourth Quarter Comeback

Washington had the momentum in the third quarter. Penix was marking up the stats sheet late into this game. But the Longhorns weren’t out of it. After a fumble ended a 60-yard Texas drive, it got the ball back after a punt and drove 72 yards in 10 plays. Ewers, who had not done much to that point, delivered two of the better passes of the day. One of which was to Xavier Worthy for 38 yards. He placed it with excellent touch in the face of pressure. Four plays later, Ewers tossed an end zone fade to Adonai Mitchell who made an impressive leaping grab to cut the game to six points, 34-28 with seven minutes to play.

Grady Gross answered by extending the Husky lead to nine points with under three minutes to play. Needing points quickly, Ewers promptly led a Texas drive of 68 yards in 1:25. The Texas deficit was cut to six points. Washington recovered the onside kick, and it seemed as though Washington could run out the clock. However, on the third down play, running back Dillon Johnson was injured. The injury timeout saved around 30 seconds of the clock, and Texas regained possession on the punt with 45 seconds left in the game. On the punt, Washington was also flagged for kick-catch interference, and Texas was granted an additional 15 yards.

With no timeouts and in 45 seconds, Ewers led the drive of his collegiate career. He completed passes of 41 and 16 yards to get Texas inside the Washington red zone with 12 seconds remaining. Neither team had a timeout, and Texas had time for four plays. After three unsuccessful passes, Ewers had one second remaining to make one throw to the end zone. On the snap, Ewers fired it 13 yards to the corner of the end zone to Mitchell, and Makell Esteen broke up the pass. Washington escaped in one of the most dramatic, and unexpected endings in College Football Playoff history.

How We Got There

Washington received the kickoff to begin the second half of the Sugar Bowl in a 21-21 tie game. The teams split touchdowns in the final few minutes of the half, but it was in the third quarter that Washington separated themselves from Texas. On the opening drive of the second half, Penix drove the Huskies eight plays, 70 yards, and fired a 29-yard touchdown pass to take the lead for the fourth time of the day. With the touchdown pass, Penix surpassed the 300-yard mark.

On the first play of the ensuing Texas possession, CJ Baxter coughed it up and Washington jumped on it. Penix trotted the offense out just outside the Texas 33-yard line for their second possession of the half. The game’s first turnover resulted in three points for Washington and extended the lead to 10.

The Huskies regained possession with just under six to play in the third and continued to control the quarter. Their third possession of the third quarter resulted in another field goal and took the game into the final period. In the third quarter alone, Washington had outgained Texas by 134 yards, ran 22 plays compared to five Texas plays, and had the football for over 12 minutes. Three possessions in the third quarter resulted in 13 straight Washington points, which would prove to be a crucial difference in this contest.

Quarterback Showcase

We witnessed two of the nation’s best quarterbacks call the signals in this Sugar Bowl classic. Ewers finished with 318 yards, and one touchdown. It included his late-game heroics that ended up falling just short in the final second. However, it was Penix Jr. who had the stand-out and nearly record-setting day. The Maxwell Award winner finished with 430 yards and two touchdowns on 29 of 38 attempts. He tallied seven “big-time throws” on the evening, fitting the football into tight windows and for long completions. Penix completed nine passing plays of more than 15 yards, and two of them were for touchdowns. The Huskies have averaged 5.5 passes per game of more than 20 yards. Penix had six today.

But it wasn’t just the downfield passing accuracy that made a statement. Penix’s pocket awareness, sack aversion, and ability to extend plays was exceptional in the Sugar Bowl. The Texas defensive line we know to be one of the most physical in the country forced exactly zero quarterback hurries on the evening. While they did break into the backfield on a handful of occasions, Penix stayed poised in the pocket, avoided the pressure, and delivered an accurate ball. 

Physicality Up Front

Despite not recording any quarterback hurries and forcing zero sacks, the Texas defensive line did play well. Washington was not able to run the ball at the success rate they’d had in several of their Pac-12 games this season. It was passing plays that set up the Husky scoring. While Johnson scored two touchdowns on the ground, the Husky offense averaged just 3.3 yards per rush. Ryan Grubb‘s offense finished with just 102 rushing yards. All of Washington’s success in its Sugar Bowl victory was produced through the air. 

On the Washington side of the ball, Bralen Trice had a stand-out game on the Husky defensive line. Washington only had 19 sacks on the year, good for 115th nationally. Trice finished with two sacks and three tackles for loss.  The Husky defense finished with five tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. The pressure they got on Ewers and the Texas backfield all day was impressive, and a big reason for their success in this game.

Record-Setting Wide Out

Rome Odunze set the Washington single-season record for receiving yards in one season with his second catch of the evening. His first two catches were a 24-yard reception and a three-yard reception. The yardage surpassed Reggie Williams’ previous record of 1,454 set in 2002. Odunze finished the game with 125 receiving yards for a total of 1,553 on the season. He’ll have one more game to add to that total, and it will be one of the biggest games in Washington football history.

Washington Wins Sugar Bowl, Advances to National Title

The Washington Huskies will play for the national championship for the first time since the 1991 season. That year, Washington beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to claim the National Title. On January 8th, 2024, Washington will again play Michigan for the National Championship. This time, the game will be played in Houston at NRG Stadium in the final year of the four-team College Football Playoff.

Photo Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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