The skies remained calm as bleak as the Seattle gray was. With the 2023 Washington Huskies warming up on the visiting side, fans at home were treated to something nice when a sideline reporter pulled Zion Tupuloa-Fetui from the mix and asked him a simple question. “How ready are you and this team for the game today?”
With his signature smile, ZTF quipped, “As ready as we will ever be.” Attempting to extend the emotion of the moment, the defensive end went on, explaining, “This team is the best team around and we’ve been waiting for this game for a while. The fans at home have had questions, yet here we are and this team is ready to rock the PNW.”
“Thank you,” Tasha Briggs concluded, allowing herself to smile. Even the viewers found themselves grinning, the ZTF effect in full swing.
The lights cut and the audience, a sold out group of over 70,000, rocked. “Go! Huskies!” The chant filled the air at a frequency that likely rivaled the record, purple LEDs flashing in rapid succession towards the home stands. Blood pumping, veins swelling, the ‘23 Huskies looked to the spot every fan had their eyes on. 2016 emerged, the triumphant return to the field blasting adrenaline through the hearts of Husky nation.
The only Husky who appeared unfazed was Michael Penix Jr., his hallmark stare while drinking water serving as an omen for what was to come – and hopefully a positive one. It was he who led his fellow captains out, shaking hands with the team that had forged the path seven years ago. As the referee announced who would be calling the coin toss, the ‘23 Huskies aimed to do so as the away team. With the coin flipped, tails were called, and 2016 had elected to defer the opening kick.
To the roar of 2016 fans, eager to see their defense strike first, Penix & co. huddled their helmets together. Breaking down the play, the ‘23 Huskies clapped in unison, but as the stadium shook, the first two runs were stifled by none other than Vita Vea. Assuming the shotgun position, Penix spread his receivers wide, tossing the open slant to Polk before the pass was broken up by breakthrough Freshman Taylor Rapp.
The stadium erupted in a choir of chants as the ensuing punt did its job well enough to pin the ‘16 Huskies inside the ten-yard line. For the first time in a while, Jake Browning marched onto the field, barking orders over the noise that had died slightly but was still strong with the ‘23 fans supporting their team.
The initial first down of the game was attained when Browning hit Pettis on the corner of the sidelines, resetting his team on the twenty-five. The clock stopped, and the team took the opportunity to level set and temper their feelings. Gaskin checked into the game, with Drew Sample motioning himself into the backfield to set up a heavy package that saw Gaskin hitting the gap for seven yards.
Early game the circumstances were clear. This team, the 2016 Washington Huskies, was winning the line of scrimmage on both sides. It wasn’t until a pressure from Bralen Trice on a first down at ‘23’s thirty yardline was able to swing the pendulum to the left a bit. Stalling out, Browning cursed as he had to settle for a field goal, to which ‘16 grabbed immediately. 3-0 with 9:38 left on the clock in the first quarter.
Out came Penix once more trying to find a rhythm that so sorely lacked the first drive. Spreading his receivers out again, a play action to Johnson opened up the middle path for McMillan, an easy connection to make. Hurrying to the line of scrimmage, Dillon Johnson was stuffed again and it took a first down toss to Rome Odunze to break the heat. On the twenty yardline, the ‘23 Huskies hit a wall of fury led by Joe Mathis and Byron Murphy on the corners that promptly forced them into field goal range.
The score at 3-3 and the quarter coming to a close, both teams had decisions to make. Both defenses were too sharp to attack in the redzone and by the looks from the folks watching the game, this was either going to be an offensive disaster or defensive showcase.
Browning brought the ‘16 Huskies to a three and out, deciding to choose the wrong moment to abandon the run. The plan would’ve likely worked if it weren’t for Mohammad crashing Ross’s route. Penix now with the opportunity to change the game and bring the momentum towards 2023 buckled in opening his team into a set that was easily shifted into a completely different look.
Before Johnson received another touch, Penix tossed three straight completions to Westover, Odunze, and McMillan in that order. With the defense on its heels, the ‘23 whirled them around into another score, this time a touchdown off an 18-yard run from Johnson.
Both teams would be forced to punt again and this time, Browning had two-and-a-half minutes to make magic happen. Starting from back in his own end of the field, he motioned John Ross inside towards the center. In a seamless transition, the ball was snapped and the motion turned into a perfect route up the middle. Unfortunately, the ‘23 secondary bit and Browning capitalized dinking the ball off to Aaron Fuller who grabbed a first down.
DeBoer, livid at the opportunity ‘16 had to stop the clock above two minutes was swiftly told by the referees that this was to be played under 2016 rules. Forced to recede, he watched the ‘16 team march down the field with two more big plays, the second of which was a fifteen yard run for Gaskin that gashed a hole in the ‘23 front seven.
Seeing this, Browning gave it right back to him and with wind on his back, he carried for another nine yards.
Now the ‘16 team had options with over a minute and roughly thirty yards to play with. Seizing the moment to substitute they brought in a promising four-receiver package that caught ‘23 off guard allowing the touchdown to Dante Pettis. With the score at 10-10, both teams traded again, but a field goal for ‘23 before the half and another ‘16 touchdown meant the away team was down.
Now, it was Kwiatkowski’s chance to show the world why he was who he was, packing on the pressure up middle for Penix who suffered from an unsuspecting line. This created his first mistake of the night, a pick that was hauled in by Sidney Jones. Browning, up 17-13, decided now was the time to put the game away and that he did taking his team down the field in seven minutes and thirty-seven seconds.
Now, the score read 24-13 and the ‘23 chances of winning seemed hopeless. This 2016 CFP semi-finalist of a juggernaut had the upper hand and it was time for Penix to respond or this would be the end. It started simply enough, Johnson sprinting for a few yards before the ‘23 QB found his receiver in the slant. A first down reached, the clock stopped and the chains reset giving ‘23 the chance to breathe momentarily. They snapped again and found Odunze down the sideline for the post, a route that was blown open by Taylor Rapp biting on the seam from Jack Westover. Now, ‘23 gave them another odd look that amounted to a flea flicker perfectly executed for the touchdown.
24-20. Browning was here before and needed the lengthy drive to try and end this ‘23 team that kept coming back. He did so taking his team 79 yards in another five minutes for the touchdown. The ‘23 defense was gassed and with just over half the fourth quarter left Grubb had to dial up something special to make it out of this alive.
Penix executed what he could to the best of his ability finding his receivers when they were open in the quagmire that was the ‘16 secondary. Quickly, the effort was matched and the ‘23 Huskies rolled downfield giving the ball to Johnson or tossing it to the open man. With the score Penix had to hope that the four minutes on the clock wouldn’t disappear with the ‘16 Huskies’ clock management.
Thankfully, the defense chose then for the team to be dialed into a big time stop and in a symphony of dramatic effect, Penix orchestrated a thing of beauty and put this away as 2016’s ninth brought the team to an untimely end. Penix, not rattled by the crowd, found Odunze for the over the shoulder catch that hauled in a touchdown with little time left.
The 2023 Washington Huskies beat the 2016 Washington Huskies with a score of 34-31. Michael Penix Jr. and Jake Browning had nearly identical stats each throwing for over 300 yards the former with a 18-27 completion rate and the latter with a 20-28 mark. Gaskin was the better of the tailbacks eclipsing 150 yards on 19 carries.
‘23 improves to 1-0 before a date with the 2014 Oregon Ducks next Saturday.