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University of Washington Huskies Football

How has UW QB Michael Penix Jr. handled pressure of unbeaten season and Heisman campaign?

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) pauses before coming back onto the field for a set of downs against WSU during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. UW won the game 24-21.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – As Grady Gross kicked a game-winning 42-yard field goal, his quarterback’s head stayed buried in an equipment cart, his face frozen from view. Michael Penix Jr. remained in that position long after the kick went through, while his teammates lifted Gross on their shoulders and students began to stream onto the field inside Husky Stadium. Penix draped himself in a jacket, with the hood falling over his head, and was led by a security guard up the tunnel.

It was an unusual exit for the Heisman Trophy contender, whose Huskies had capped an undefeated regular season with a 24-21 Apple Cup victory over Washington State on Saturday.

It was also human nature for a sixth-year senior bearing the increasing weight of a 19-game winning streak.

“I’m sure he was just praying for Grady and hoping for the best (when he didn’t watch the kick), honestly,” UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said Monday when asked for an explanation. “There are nerves at the end of a game like that. There’s a lot of pressure on these kids, man. They’re awesome kids, and they love what they do out there, and they want to do their best. They just want to go out there and win and make the community proud. So I think there’s a piece there where they feel that.

“In a moment like that, I’m sure it’s incredibly emotional. That probably wore on Mike as much as it did any of the guys.”

Grubb later added, after being asked if Penix is fully healthy: “Yeah, he’s good. He was a little under the weather at the end of the game, but he’s good.”

Penix – who completed 18 of 33 passes for 204 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against WSU – has embraced a unique set of circumstances, with a season, and a Heisman campaign and accruing endorsement deals all settling on his shoulders.

When asked how his standout quarterback has handled that load, Grubb said: “I’d give him an A+. I would. There’s plenty of grown adults that would not handle it 1% as good as Mike has. My hat’s off to him. … And (the players) get it. They understand the position they’re in and that this is big college football and all of those types of things. But I just think he’s done a great job.

“I just told him (this week) to lose himself in the prep, just focus on playing a fun football game against a team he’s already played and beaten twice. ‘Just lose yourself in that and have fun with it.’ Because once you start weighing the playoffs and the Heisman, you make it about all that. You don’t make it about winning the football game and playing his best game as a quarterback for Washington.”

For Penix and Co. to top Oregon on Friday for the third time in two seasons, his best may be required.

Since downing the Ducks 36-33 inside Husky Stadium on Oct. 14, UW’s passing attack has stagnated. While Penix completed 72.1% of his passes in the Huskies’ first six games, that number fell to 58.9% in the second half. And though he tossed 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions in Washington’s first six wins, that ratio tumbled to 12 TDs and five picks in the next six. UW’s passing yards per game plummeted from 424.7 to 266.3 during the same span.

Though the regression is undeniable, the solutions are not so clear.

“There’s no doubting that. It’s statistical evidence. (The passing game) hasn’t been as effective,” Grubb said. “I know everybody worries about how much the ball is going down the field or not going down the field, but I think we also made a lot of those plays that got us some big wins, too. I don’t think you can just change your DNA completely. You’ve got to find the right shots at the right times and (know) when to be patient as well.

“We’ll have a good plan ready for Oregon (in the Pac-12 title game Friday), and our guys are going to have to make contested catches. That’s going to be a given. You go back to the Oregon game that we won, and almost every big play that we had was a contested throw.”

Grubb added that defenses are attacking his unit “more aggressively,” which translates to man-to-man coverage.

That’s a position where Washington’s wide receivers must consistently win.

And Penix must play his part.

“I think Michael has a heart of gold. He just cares so much,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said of his quarterback, who has completed 65.6% of his passes and thrown for 3,899 yards with 35 total touchdowns and eight interceptions. “I’ve said all along how much of a team player he is. He wants it for his teammates more than he even wants it for himself. He wants it for this community.

“Every game that you go through, and especially when you’ve got a perfect season going, there’s a desire to want to keep it on. But I don’t think it’s really affecting how he’s playing or anything like that.”

Did WSU have upper hand?

While discussing Saturday’s game, Grubb stated matter-of-factly that “I know Washington State had gotten some of our calls and some of our signals and things like that. So we’re making some adjustments to that this week to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We tell the kids, ‘Hey, we’ll take care of that. You just take care of the play.’ ”

Of course, UW’s offense underwhelmed in the 24-21 win, producing 306 total yards (and 204 passing yards), punting six times and going 6-for-14 on third down.

When asked how he learned that WSU’s staff supposedly had the Huskies’ signals, Grubb added: “That’s a secret. I can’t tell you.”

But Grubb and DeBoer downplayed the severity of the situation. After all, sign-stealing is technically legal in college football, provided you don’t send scouts to opponents’ games or explicitly film their signals (as former Michigan staffer Connor Stalions is alleged to have done).

“All is fair in love and war,” Grubb said. “They didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just saying they had some of our calls.”

Added DeBoer, when asked to comment on the subject: “I’m not going to get into that too much. That happens. It’s not like what we’re seeing in the landscape of college football (with the Michigan investigation) that revolves around that. It happens on some level in almost … not every game, but a lot of games. There’s a lot of crossover, a lot of people who know each other, and players that played at certain places and things like that.

“It’s not going to affect us moving forward. We found a way to win.”