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University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: Michael Penix Jr. and talented receivers show why ‘the sky’s the limit’ for UW Husky offense

Washington wide receiver Jalen McMillan leaps into the air to celebrate his touchdown run against Boise State on Saturday at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The pass was soaring down the left sideline, on a perfect trajectory to hit Ja’Lynn Polk in stride for a 50-yard connection. As he looked up at the ball’s precise path while standing on the sideline, Husky coach Kalen DeBoer shook his head in appreciation yet again at the marksmanship of his quarterback, Michael Penix Jr.

“It just seemed to hang in the air, and from my perspective, it was just a thing of beauty,’’ DeBoer said. “We had a step on the defender, but a lot of times, that ball gets overthrown, or underthrown. Mike put it right on the money.”

It’s the kind of innate touch that makes Husky receiver Rome Odunze marvel time and again – even (or especially) when the ball is headed in his direction.

“Oh, it still amazes me,” Odunze said. “I mean, I’ve been seeing him do it for, shoot, about a year and some months now. It still impresses me every time I see that ball in the air. And when it’s coming toward me, I’m like, ‘Dang, that’s a good ball. I’ve got to catch it.’ “

On a day when the Huskies started slowly, getting shut out in the first quarter, and when they rarely could get their running game untracked, they still flashed their massive offensive potential in a 56-19 rout of Boise State at Husky Stadium.

It all flowed back to Penix and his deep, talented and versatile receiving corps. DeBoer said the lesson the coaching staff hammers home to their players in times of stress and adversity is to let the game come to them. And Penix, who advanced his Heisman case in the season opener with a five-touchdown effort, exemplified that mantra to perfection.

Four of those touchdowns came in the second quarter, after Penix and the play callers had due time to analyze how the Broncos were trying to curtail them, and figure out how to best combat their efforts. Penix hit Jalen McMillan with 7- and 38-yard scoring passes, Polk with a 44-yard TD reception, and tight end Jack Westover with a 20-yarder. All of a sudden, a tense game had swung irreversibly in Washington’s favor.

“We knew that they were going to try to bring different things at us, things we might not have seen on film,’’ Penix said. “But once we started seeing the picture, it was on from there.”

Penix ended up completing 29 of 40 passes for 450 yards, but said his favorite pass of the game was the 31-yard TD pass by backup quarterback Dylan Morris in garbage time. To DeBoer, that sentiment was a reflection both of the close relationship between the two quarterbacks, and Penix’s unselfish leadership.

Penix certainly spread the wealth as far as dealing out receiving yardage. Odunze (7 catches, 132 yards, 1 touchdown) and Polk (3 catches, 101 yards, 1 touchdown) both reached triple-digits in receiving yards, and McMillan was close behind (6 catches, 95 yards, 2 touchdowns). McMillan had the distinction of throwing a pass completion (9 yards to Westover for a first down) and running for a score (19 yards from the wildcat formation after a fake to Odunze).

“Man, it’s really easy, because I know somebody’s gonna be open every play,’’ Penix said.

DeBoer also noted that wide receiver Germie Benard (3 catches, 47 yards) made an impact, and said that wideout Denzel Boston, who played minimally, would have his time to shine as the year progressed.

“It’s great, because they all push each other,’’ DeBoer said. “They all make each other better. They believe and have a lot of fun. And they know that they’re going to get the ball if they just put in the work all week long, are confident in the route running and do the right things.”

About the only downside for Penix was that he didn’t match or surpass Jake Browning’s school record of six touchdowns in a game, accomplished twice in 2016 (vs. Cal and Oregon). Touchdown No. 5 for Penix came with 10:38 in the third quarter on a 5-yard pass to Odunze, but with a healthy 42-19 lead, the Huskies weren’t quite as aggressive the rest of the way.

Penix’s last chance to catch Browning expired when McMillan, fighting for the end zone, was stopped at the 1 – inside the 1, actually – after hauling in a Penix pass. Dillon Thomas ran the ball in on the next play.

“I wanted that one back so bad,’’ McMillan said. “Inches, man. Inches. Inches.”

Not that Penix cared about the record. He said he had no idea how many touchdown passes he had thrown until a reporter told him after the game. What resonated with the quarterback and his receivers is how much more explosive potential they have than what they displayed in putting up 56 points against a team that finished fifth in the nation in pass defense last year.

“We’re so ready and so excited for the season,’’ said running back Will Nixon. “The potential is higher than the sky.”

“I think the sky’s the limit for us,’’ Odunze added. “With our preparation and our mindset right now, we believe that we can do way more than that. We started slow, but starting fast and being able to continue to sustain that success and make those plays is something that’s in our future for sure.

“Even with our slow start, even with our hiccups, we were able to come in and have success. God knows what we’ll be able to do when we’re firing on all cylinders.”

Until then, the Huskies can live off the happy memories of Penix’s precision heaves sailing into receivers’ arms, over and over again.