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UW football notes: Michael Penix Jr. ‘back to himself’; Jalen McMillan aims to return

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. warms up before taking on Arizona State at Husky Stadium on Oct. 21, 2023, in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

Michael Penix Jr.’s opposition Saturday was inward and outward, all at once.

The sixth-year senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful completed 21 of 37 passes for 369 yards with four touchdowns and an interception in No. 5 Washington’s 42-33 win over Stanford. He did so while battling the flu.

“Even in the beginning of the game he was still fighting,” UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said Monday. “He just did a great job. He knew he was sick. He had battled through it during the week, and especially early in the week he was certainly weak. But he knew he had to be out there [at practice] to get the reps and get the knowledge of what we were running and the coverage schemes and things like that. So I thought he battled his butt off and did a great job of just putting himself in a position to play a great game.”

Granted, it wasn’t Penix’s greatest game, marred by uncharacteristic misses in an underwhelming road win. But Penix and Co. did enough to extend a 15-game winning streak and preserve a No. 5 national ranking. He’ll need to be better against No. 24 USC — and reigning Heisman quarterback Caleb Williams — on Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

But Grubb said Penix’s illness didn’t affect his approach to the Stanford game.

“I didn’t feel like there were throws we had to stay away from or anything like that,” he said. “It was more of just thinking about ways to keep Mike from being taxed. Even in practice, there were some times where [backup quarterbacks Dylan Morris and Austin Mack] had to take extra reps that they wouldn’t normally take to keep Mike as fresh as we could and limit his reps and how much he had to exert himself during the week. But he did a great job. He fought through it. There was really very little adjustment to what we had to do.”

Grubb also confirmed that other UW players were battling illness as well. He said “it’s that time of year. I can remember going to the Washington State game last year, and I wanted to fly separately. That’s about what it is. So everybody take a little vitamin C in the morning and drink a lot of water.”

UW coach Kalen DeBoer said the team has thus far avoided bouts with COVID-19.

Through eight weeks, Penix — a Tampa product and Indiana transfer — has completed 68.8% of his passes and thrown for 2,945 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. He torched Oregon for 302 yards and four touchdowns in UW’s only previous matchup with a ranked opponent two weeks ago.

Penix needs to play like himself Saturday.

But first, he has to feel that way.

“He was really good [Sunday]. That was the best I’ve seen him in probably 10 days, honestly,” Grubb said. “Yesterday in meetings he seemed really upbeat and just seemed like he was in a good spot. He was back to himself.”

McMillan’s return attempts

Jalen McMillan has twice tried to return from a left-leg injury sustained against Michigan State on Sept. 16.

Those returns didn’t take.

After missing UW’s wins over Cal and Arizona, the junior wide receiver started against Oregon … but aggravated the injury after only seven snaps.

On Saturday — after sitting out against Arizona State — McMillan returned again against Stanford, only to exit after 12 more snaps. He limped to the sideline and sat on the bench, staring at the ground, clutching his left knee.

“He was emotional. It’s been really hard on him,” Grubb said. “I’m not saying J-Mac’s never been hurt. He’s obviously been injured. But just having to fight through some of this and find a way to be out there … obviously he’s had two different games where he’s tried to do that and get out on the field and stay out there. His body just hasn’t allowed that to happen for him.

“He wants to be out there. He wants to make an impact and help us win games, and he certainly can. We miss him. Obviously JP [Ja’Lynn Polk] and Rome [Odunze] are phenomenal, and Germie [Bernard] and all the guys are great. But J-Mac is his own kind of guy. His ability to separate versus man coverage is elite. He knows that, and he knows we’re better with him out there. So it’s hard on him. It’s really hard.”

Meanwhile, McMillan’s future availability — with Washington preparing for consecutive ranked matchups against No. 24 USC, No. 18 Utah and No. 16 Oregon State — is decidedly unclear. Grubb shared that “I talked to [senior associate athletic trainer Daren Nystrom] yesterday, and they did strength tests again. He’s doing good. It’s just with some of the cuts, he’s so violent at the top end of his routes that it produces a lot of stress on his joints. So with some of that, when he doesn’t feel the stability … until he can really feel 100 percent on that we’ll have to wait and see.

“So we’re still hopeful he’s going to get out there again, try the brace on his knee and see what happens.”

The 6-foot-1, 192-pound McMillan produced 20 catches, 311 receiving yards and four total touchdowns in the first two-and-a-half games this fall. Considering McMillan’s NFL aspirations, DeBoer was asked whether they’d considering shutting their standout wide receiver down for the remainder of the season.

But the Fresno, Calif., product is determined to return.

“It’s all just game by game, because he’s really close. It’s day to day with him,” DeBoer said. “[We’re] just trying to figure out exactly how to get him over the hump. He wants to be out there as bad as anyone. He’s a big-time competitor. He knows how important he is to our football team, so whatever we can do to get him out there as quick as possible and feel good about it, we’re all for it.”

Last offseason, it was widely assumed McMillan — who posted 79 catches, 1,098 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 2022 — would dominate this fall, then coast to the NFL. And though that may still be the result, the junior has one year of remaining eligibility, should he decide instead to return in 2024.

“I’m sure that does weigh on him,” Grubb said. “We check in with him. [Wide receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard] and myself talk to him a lot about those things, without trying to predict what’s going to happen or force him into one lane. We just want him to know we support him and love him and are going to help him any way we can.”