Michael Penix Jr.’s Heisman candidacy snuck up on people last season. That included his own marketing department as Washington only began to push Penix’s case in the national media after a 50-31 regular season-ending victory over Washington State in which Penix threw for 485 yards with 5 total TDs.
Washington’s Athletic Department rectified that situation this offseason with a frequent push of the Heisman narrative ever since Penix announced last December that he would forego the NFL Draft to return to school for a 6th and final season. That decision wasn’t expected but was certainly welcomed by all within the program. Penix’s choice also helped inspire the return of other key offensive contributors such as 1,000-yard receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan as well as Offensive Coordinator Ryan Grubb, who turned down a chance to take the Alabama OC job this offseason.
All of it set up for the potential of one magical ride come the 2023 season. Last season’s national leader in passing yards (4,641 plus 31 passing TDs) returning to school after an 11-2 finish with his entire coaching staff and receiving corps intact as well. The only thing left to do was to live up to expectations.
So far that hasn’t been a problem.
Penix opened the 2023 season by eviscerating Mountain West preseason favorite Boise State to the tune of 450 passing yards and 5 TDs with 0 turnovers. There were a pair of missed deep balls early in the game but after that point Penix became surgical, finding holes everywhere in the Boise secondary. Washington’s explosive play rate in that game was almost literally off the charts.
Explosive Play Rate (you want to be top left) pic.twitter.com/dyjB1MsRxG— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) September 5, 2023
Last Saturday, Tulsa saw what happened to Boise and decided to try to take away the deep ball at all costs. I guess you could say that it worked. Washington didn’t complete a single pass of 40+ yards. But then again, Penix led an offense that saw 5 different receivers secure a reception of 30+ yards on the way to averaging 10.8 yards per attempt. And the only reason there wasn’t also a 51-yard touchdown throw was an uncharacteristic drop by a wide-open Jalen McMillan along the sideline.
At some point, Penix’s numbers will slow down a little bit. He’s unlikely to average 425+ yards per game over the entire season once the level of competition steps up a little bit. But as it stands Penix is on pace (over a 12-game regular season) to finish with 5,154 passing yards and 48 passing TDs. Both those marks would have comfortably led the country last year. Should the Huskies make the Pac-12 title game to add on a 13th game then 5,000+ yards seems extremely doable.
Raw stats are one thing when it comes to a Heisman candidacy but it takes more than just that. The history of the award tells us that team success, showcase opportunities, and narrative also heavily impact the chances of winning.
Washington had team success last year going 11-2 but ended the season on a 7-game winning streak and just missed out on a Pac-12 title game appearance based on convoluted 3-way tiebreaker math. That’s all well and good but getting into legitimate College Football Playoff contention really helps a case. Eventual winner Caleb Williams was largely anointed when USC was just a win over Utah in the Pac-12 title game away from a CFP berth (whoops).
Right now the Huskies are #8 in the AP Poll and still very much look like a team that could finish the year with just a single loss. That’s still no guarantee though because of that second point: showcase opportunities.
The death of the Pac-12 may be imminent but the conference appears ready to go out with a bang. Right now there are 8 teams ranked in the top-25 of the AP Poll and only one conference team is an underdog this weekend (Arizona State against Fresno State by 3 points). If the Pac-12 takes care of business again on Saturday then it means Washington looks likely to play at least 4 ranked opponents this season with a chance at a 5th if Washington State can keep afloat before the regular season finale in the Apple Cup.
Washington gets to host Oregon and their Heisman hopeful QB Bo Nix in a few weeks as well as take a trip to the Coliseum against Caleb Williams and USC later in the year (plus games against Utah and Oregon State). Should Penix outduel either or both opposing quarterbacks in a Husky victory on what assuredly will be a primetime matchup then it gives a massive boost to his credentials.
That just leaves the final box of narrative. It’s hard to imagine many players out there who are easier to root for. Penix spent four seasons as the starting quarterback at Indiana and each of them ended in season-ending injury. He somehow attempted fewer passes in those four years than he did in one season plus one game in a Husky uniform.
Penix’s high point with the Hoosiers from a statistical standpoint was his 2019 season when now Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer was his offensive coordinator: 68.8% completion, 10 TD, 4 INT, 8.7 Yards per Attempt in 6 games (4-2 record). That set the stage for a miraculous start to the 2020 season which included a controversial but epic upset of Penn State and a 5-1 start with only a one score loss to Ohio State. In 2021, Indiana cratered and it looked like injuries may have caught up to Penix in what truly qualified as a statistically below average season.
No one blamed Penix for deciding to transfer out of that offense facing a 4th straight major injury. Too often we see that scenario result in college football fans in a bar several decades later reminiscing “remember that Penix guy? I wish he could’ve stayed healthy.” Instead, we’ve gotten to see the result of a healthy Penix combined with one of the best offensive systems in the country and surrounded by future NFL Draft picks.
There may be some detractors that try to use the fortuitous circumstances around Michael Penix Jr. to take away from his accomplishments. There are plenty of quarterbacks who would find success throwing to Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, and Ja’Lynn Polk (each on pace for over 1,000 yards so far). That doesn’t give Penix credit for his mastery of an offense that thrives with the use of pre-snap motion and misdirection. Washington’s offensive line is good but a quarterback like Penix doesn’t go through a season with only 5 sacks like he did last year without being in command and knowing exactly when to get rid of the ball.
The bar is clear for a Penix Heisman victory. Surpass last year’s passing yardage and TD totals. Finish with one or fewer losses and enter the Pac-12 title game with a top-five national ranking. Outplay Bo Nix and/or Caleb Williams in the showcase games versus Oregon and USC.
Those are lofty goals. But you try showing Michael Penix Jr. adversity that he can’t overcome.