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University of Washington Huskies Football

Analysis: Eight plays that helped the Huskies preserve an undefeated regular season

Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. (9) celebrates a play as the No. 8 Oregon Ducks take on the No. 7 Washington Huskies in a Pac-12 football game on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – When asked Monday about the challenge in emerging from a 12-game schedule unscathed, UW coach Kalen DeBoer said: “We have done such a good job of not making it, ‘Wow, look at the teams you’re going to play and all the different types of offenses, defenses, the skill players you’re going to see, the places you’re going to be, the hostile environments.’ You can’t make it about that. You make it about the moment you’re in and focus on that.”

A season is made of a million moments.

Some matter more than others.

That’s particularly true for No. 3 Washington (12-0), which won each of its last eight games by 10 points or less. Each time, a moment – a play – tipped the scale Washington’s way.

For evidence, see Saturday.

Tied 21-21 with 1 minute, 15 seconds left in the 115th Apple Cup, UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. took a shotgun snap on fourth-and-1 from UW’s 29-yard line, turned, faked a hand off to running back Dillon Johnson and flipped to wide receiver Rome Odunze instead. Odunze tore down the left sideline for a 23-yard gain, clearing the way for a late 42-yard field goal in a 24-21 Washington win.

This was an unprecedented gamble by DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb.

When in doubt … go to the goal-line package.

“(Quality control coach) Mitch Dahlen, who helps out the quarterbacks, is the one that dug (that play) up and was talking about it,” Grubb said. “It came up in some of our goal line (packages). So that wasn’t exactly where I was going to call it on the field, but it was the right time. It was in our goal-line package, but I just felt like, ‘This might as well be goal line.’ ”

In that moment, it might as well have been the game.

Or, for that matter, the season.

“The biggest part is you’ve got a head coach that believes in the call, and he sticks with it, and you get the ball to your best guy in the best moment and your quarterback’s making a great decision,” Grubb said. “Because Mike (Penix) was reading that play. If the edge was soft he was going to give it to DJ (Dillon Johnson), but he obviously knew they were sucking down and he read it right and did a great job.”

Since we’re on the subject, here are seven other plays that helped preserve the Huskies’ 12-0 regular season.

Sept. 30 – UW 31, Arizona 24

Culp’s third-down catch

Seven points were the difference in the desert.

Enter Devin Culp.

Leading 21-10 with 7:19 left in the third quarter, Penix took a shotgun snap on third-and-16 from the Wildcats’ 22-yard line. He faked a handoff, looked left and threw a pass that Culp (Gonzaga Prep) enveloped with two hands, through the arms of Arizona safety Dalton Johnson. UW’s senior tight end trapped the football against his helmet at he tumbled to the turf for an 18-yard gain.

Johnson rumbled in for a 4-yard touchdown on the next play, giving the Huskies a 28-10 third-quarter lead. But it was Culp’s catch that improbably extended the drive and made that touchdown possible.

Oct. 14 – UW 36, Oregon 33

The fourth-down stops

This may be cheating, but let’s lump a trio of critical fourth-down stops into one slightly overstuffed section.

Because while six of Oregon’s 11 drives entered the red zone, the Ducks stalled twice with failed fourth downs (and Bo Nix incompletions) inside the Husky 10. Needing one more first down to win the game, the Ducks were again denied – as Nix’s pass on fourth-and-3 from the Husky 47 sailed wide of Oregon wideout Tez Johnson.

After that empty opportunity, of course, UW quickly capitalized – as Penix found Odunze for the go-ahead 18-yard score just two plays later.

And sure, Oregon’s Camden Lewis missed a game-tying 43-yard field goal as time expired. But Oregon’s offense could have ensured Lewis wasn’t put in that position.

Oct. 21 – UW 15, Arizona State 7

Powell’s pick-six

If any single play saved the season, this was it.

The Huskies appeared incapable of scoring an offensive touchdown against Arizona State. And with a 7-6 fourth-quarter lead, the Sun Devils had an opportunity to distance themselves.

They did the opposite.

On fourth-and-3 from the Husky 12, ASU quarterback Trenton Bourguet looked right and made a fateful mistake – staring down a slant that UW nickel Mishael Powell jumped and returned for an 89-yard pick-six.

The Huskies have secured 15 interceptions in 12 games, tied for ninth in the nation. This was by far the biggest.

Oct. 28 – UW 42, Stanford 33

The fourth-down drop

It wasn’t that Washington made a play.

It’s that Jayson Raines didn’t.

With 3:23 left and UW clutching a 35-33 lead, Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels took a snap on fourth-and-2 from his 28-yard line. Daniels turned and flipped to wide receiver Tiger Bachmeier – who took two steps, stopped and tossed to a wide-open target.

Raines just dropped the ball.

“Pressure will make a pipe bust,” FS1 play-by-play announcer Tim Brando said.

The Huskies scored to put the game away just four plays later.

Nov. 4 – UW 52, USC 42

ZTF’s strip-sack

USC scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the first half on Nov. 4.

Before Zion Tupuola-Fetui finally flipped the script.

With a 28-all tie and 1:14 until halftime, the Huskies’ senior edge punched the football free from USC quarterback (and reigning Heisman winner) Caleb Williams, and teammate Bralen Trice fell on the fumble. Johnson punched in a 1-yard touchdown three plays later, as UW flipped a seven-point deficit into a seven-point lead in the span of 54 seconds.

On the road, against a prolific offense, it took a momentum-shifting play to seize control.

Tupuola-Fetui provided it.

Nov. 11 – UW 35, Utah 28

A mistake absolving safety

When Alphonzo Tuputala dropped a surefire pick-six a yard shy of the goal line, his teammates were tasked with making amends. The Huskies should have had a comfortable 40-28 lead against Utah in the waning moments of the third quarter.

But UW’s defense did not allow one mistake to mushroom into more.

Instead, UW turned the next play into points, as defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa and linebacker Carson Bruener swallowed Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson in the end zone for a Husky safety.

A resilient UW defense not only shut out Utah in the second half, but also managed to score.

Nov. 18 – UW 22, Oregon State 20

Penix to Odunze

What’s your go-to third-and-3 play?

A 19-yard back-shoulder fade, of course.

That’s what Washington used with a 22-20 lead and 1:58 left, as Penix looked left and found Odunze – his favorite target – for a clock-killing completion. If Penix and Odunze couldn’t connect, the 8-2 Beavers may have had the ball back – needing just a field goal to win – with more than a minute left.

Instead, Penix kneeled three times and left Corvallis with a top-10 win.