He walked to the front of the room on two surgically repaired knees along with edge rusher Edefuan Ulofoshio and delivered a message. The new year was five hours away. Bourbon Street was a short walk away. Families flooded into town. Texas fans, much to Washington’s chagrin, were all over the Huskies’ team hotel, too.
This was their time to lock in and focus. They needed to block out distractions, though the midnight fireworks downtown made it hard to get to sleep early. He reminded them they’d been working their whole lives for an opportunity like the one they’d earned.
They’d won their past nine games by 10 or fewer points and needed second-half comebacks to win three of them.
All of it had carried them to this moment. He told them to be ready.
No one was more ready than Penix himself, who connected with Ja’Lynn Polk for 77 yards on his second pass attempt and finished with 430 yards and two touchdowns to spark Washington’s 37-31 win over Texas in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
“We just follow him,” Ulofoshio said.
A DART FROM MICHAEL PENIX JR. 😮💨
— ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2024
Some of Washington’s experienced roster has played for three coaches and endured a losing season. Penix has endured even more, starring at Indiana before injuries derailed his career and sent him into the transfer portal, where he reunited with Washington coach Kalen DeBoer — the former Indiana offensive coordinator — before last season.
His first four seasons all ended early with injuries. He tore his ACL as a freshman in 2018. A year later, he dislocated the AC joint in his right, non-throwing shoulder. He tore his ACL in 2020 again after leading the Hoosiers to the top 10 of the polls. In 2021, he dislocated a joint in his shoulder and was sidelined again.
It spawned doubt and struggles with his mental health, nearly driving him away from football.
“It led me to here. Going to Indiana helped me meet coach DeBoer, and our relationship that we built throughout the years has been amazing,” Penix said. “And I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else.”
Michael Penix Jr.’s journey isn’t only about football — it’s overcoming fear
Penix looked back on those days after the best moment of his career, reminiscing on that part of his story while also acknowledging the difficulty of his father not seeing his vision and not wanting him to begin his career at Indiana.
“He was at the bottom. He was at the top. He was at the bottom again, and here he is at the top, shining again in the biggest moment,” said receiver Rome Odunze, who led the team with six catches for 125 yards.
“He deserves this,” Ulofoshio said.
Time after time, Penix painted rainbows that scraped the sky-high ceiling of the Superdome, bringing Washington to the doorstep of its first national title since 1991 and giving the program its first College Football Playoff win. The team it beat to share the national title in 1991, by the way? Michigan, which it will face again in Houston next week for the championship before joining the Wolverines in the Big Ten next season.
Penix, alongside arguably the nation’s best receiving corps with Odunze, Polk and Jalen McMillan, beat Texas’ secondary and found the trio over and over again. He avoided Texas’ pass rush to extend plays and finished the night without being sacked or turning the ball over. He ran three times for 31 yards on called runs, a rarity in DeBoer and coordinator Ryan Grubb’s offense, which saved a few wrinkles for the biggest stage and best opponent of the season.
He fired spirals downfield that floated into his receivers’ arms and frustrated Texas’ defensive backs, who gave up 52 more passing yards to Penix than any quarterback they faced this season.
After trotting to the halftime locker room with the score tied at 21, Penix completed his first 11 passes in the third quarter to help the Huskies surge to a 31-21 lead that allowed them to control the game’s second half.
“He’s like that 24/7 every day,” Polk said. “That’s nothing new to us.”
Penix finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting a month ago, but if the ballots had been held until after Monday’s semifinals, he would have hoisted that trophy too.
“I think he didn’t win the Heisman because they always treat us as an underdog,” Polk said. “You go watch film and turn on the film and nothing lies. He can do every single thing. He can run, throw, make every single pass. Whatever it is that you need, he’s making it happen on film. For him to not get that, man, that hurt us as a team. But we knew who really won it, and that’s him.”
DeBoer called Penix the “best player in college football.”
As Penix waited for ESPN’s cameras to cut to him for his postgame interview, a staffer helped him slip on a championship T-shirt over his pads, the sleeves nearly covering the cursive “M” tattoo on his left triceps and the matching “P” on his right triceps. A purple durag covered his head.
He closed his eyes, looked to the sky and pointed for a moment of thanks.
“It was a tough time. I was going through some tough things throughout my career,” Penix said. “But I always say, ‘Man, I feel like everything I’ve been through built me for this moment. Built me into the man and the person and the player I am today.’ So I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
With championship confidence, Washington showed the world it can win it all
A few feet away, tight end Jack Westover, who caught six passes for 59 yards, crouched and stared through glassy eyes, soaking in the moment. Running back Dillon Johnson, injured in the game’s final minute, beat his chest and pumped his fist as a cart carried him into the locker room.
The Huskies were a 40-to-1 shot to win the national title to start the season, just the 14th-best odds among the contenders. Penix, 1-of-1, carried them there.
As Prince’s “Purple Rain” echoed through a stadium suddenly devoid of burnt orange, Penix walked to the stage for the trophy presentation. He hugged DeBoer, who slapped his shoulder pads. Their voices had grown hoarse.
Penix climbed atop the stage as the rest of his teammates surrounding it looked up at him.
“We got one more to go,” he said into ESPN’s microphones, as the Washington fans in the stadium roared. “We goin’ to the natty, man. Let’s go.”
(Top photo: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)